When Everything Is Surreal, How Do We Process Casual Violence?

Photo by Burhan Ozbilici. Image via AP.
Photo by Burhan Ozbilici. Image via AP.

The photographs are striking, an unintentional series that through the course of their frames at once captures the death of Andrey Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, and the violent conviction of the man who killed him, Mevlut Mert Altintas.

In one photograph, Altintas stands, feet apart, finger pointed to the sky. His mouth is open as though he is yelling, but the photograph remains stubbornly silent. Witnesses to the shooting later provided the script, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!,” Altintas allegedly shouted. In another, Altintas stands, feet still apart, gun pointed at the unseen audience that had gathered for the event. In yet another, Karlov lays on the floor dying from his wounds, that polished gray floor that, along with the framed photographs that pepper the background of the series, ground the photographs in a specific location: an art gallery.

Between the location, Altintas’s melodramatic gesturing, and what one outlet described as his “smart black tie and suit,” many could not resist the comparison of the photographs with film. In a thoughtful piece at the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth likened the photographs to “a scene from Godard or Tarantino.” In a less thoughtful observation, Kurt Andersen compared the “great photojournalism of 2016" to “stills from a scary, not-entirely-realistic movie.” Surreal, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, was the description that many offered, as though the scene of the crime—an art gallery, that bastion of highbrow culture—and Altintas’s tailored suit, a garment which John Berger argued “preserves... the natural authority of those wearing them,” were too overburdened for simple reality. Even Burhan Ozbilici, the Associated Press photographer who captured the photographs, initially found himself in disbelief of the reality before him. “The event seemed routine, the opening of an exhibit of photographs of Russia,” Ozbilici told the AP. “So when a man in a dark suit and tie pulled out a gun, I was stunned and thought it was a theatrical flourish.”


It’s a chilling observation, that violence appears so casually before the camera that it registers outside of the cosmic boundaries of reality. Within the space of the art gallery, Altintas’s violence was quickly aestheticized, pulled into the realm of art and thus the imaginary and theatrical. One of the photographs of Altintas, in particular, bears a resemblance to Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis (1963), a silkscreen image of the legendary singer pulled from a publicity still of the movie Flaming Star. Both men stand legs apart, the stance of a man trained to shoot, gun pointed outward. It’s hard to say if Altintas looks filmic, as some claim, or if Warhol’s Elvis looks realistic. Perhaps that distinction is meaningless, as Sapeth points out, “the line between the real and the phantasmagorical has never seemed thinner.”

Left: One of Warhol’s Elvis silkscreens. Image via AP.
Left: One of Warhol’s Elvis silkscreens. Image via AP.

With that line harder to draw, surreal perhaps seems the best description, it doesn’t demand that we parse violence in real and bloody ways. Central to the surreal—to the filmic—is a fundamental belief that violence is a fictional aberration. This is not true, violence is so common that it’s almost mundane, but perhaps it’s better to believe that it’s an aberration, that it’s as spectacular as the photographs which capture it. To label the photographs of Altintas and Karlov surreal or “not-entirely-realistic” doesn’t require that we acknowledge that we are looking at photographs of two dead men. The photographs lie to us here, of course, reiterating photography’s temporal conundrum (the “this-has-been”). In them, Altintas will always be alive, Karlov will always be dying. There is no end or closure, there is only the repetition of a singular event.

Almost simultaneously, Ozbilici’s photographs historicize themselves, placing them alongside their photographic companions that accumulate in our minds—photographs of death and devastation in Aleppo, the suffering of Syrian immigrants, the body bags laid out on the streets of Nice. They too have been labeled surreal, treated as images without a real physical referent, especially the images of children who are easily turned into innocent martyrs, gobbled up by a long visual history. Maybe that’s the best way to process these images; viewing them all with renewed shock seems unsustainable. It’s easier to resort to a familiar aesthetic frame where devastation slips into the surreal, where images are allowed to simply remain images, and where people are simply representations. Surrealism requires no parsing of pain, it resists interpretation.


Though maybe we are less equipped to imagine reality; maybe, as Susan Sontag argued, we’ve simply failed to hold reality in mind, replacing it instead with a constant and crushing onslaught of images. It’s ironic then, that it was Warhol who charted the path of blasé gaze at violence in his Death and Disaster series. In roughly 70 works, he reproduced press images of car crashes and electric chairs, tiled and brightly colored, collapsing his treatment of celebrities and film stills with violence. Images, no matter their content, remain images, inextricable from one another.

“As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images,” Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag was right, of course, in the crush of images, particularly on the internet, it’s virtually impossible to feel shocked over and over again (even as photojournalism values that even more). Unable to be shocked, we have, rather collectively it seems, turned to surreal. As Merriam-Webster noted in their selection of surreal as word of the year:

Surreal had three major spikes in interest that were higher in volume and were sustained for longer periods of time than in past years. In March, the word was used in coverage of the Brussels terror attacks. Then, in July, we saw the word spike again: it was used in descriptions of the coup attempt in Turkey and in coverage of the terrorist attack in Nice. Finally, we saw the largest spike in lookups for surreal following the U.S. election in November.


So here we are at surreal, a synonym, according to Merriam-Webster, of “unreal” and “fantastic.” It’s a depressing thought—that faced with such unsteadiness, such uncertainty, we’ve decided to retreat, to put aside shock or mourning or anger for a description of uncertainty derived from a visual aesthetic, from a group of men who believed that both politics and culture had lost their meaning. Maybe the Surrealists were right; maybe there are things that are impossible for us to articulate, devastations we resist describing in concrete language. Perhaps the photographs don’t resist interpretation so much as we resist interpreting them.

With such resistance, how else are we to describe these photographs of Altintas besides surreal? How else to describe the past year? Surreal doesn’t strike as quite right, quite trenchant enough, but it seems to be the only word we have.

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The Noble Renard

Every time I look at the picture of him with his finger pointed in the air, mid-shout, I get chills. It’s horrifying and yet it’s one of the best-composed pictures I’ve ever seen; the tie still ramrod-straight and yet tilted with the raising of his arm, the fact that the gun is almost an after-thought in his moment of denunciation, the black suit against the white background, the ambassador in the background with no blood and yet obviously dead, the look on the shooter’s face...

It’s not surreal, it’s classical. It’s a Renaissance painting by one of the great masters, with the exaggerated emotions at the forefront.