“All the press was trying to get something, and this guy was holding us back," says Chris McGrath, whose shot showing the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul became emblematic of a troubling year in news
“It was a really tough story to cover, because the subject wasn’t there,” says Chris McGrath. “There was so much press there, and everyone was having the same problem – I was talking with other photographers and the Getty Images office about how to tell the story. It became every day going to the same place, standing, trying to get a picture that said something.”
The story was the disappearance of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi and the problem was exactly that – a Saudi Arabian journalist, author, and editor, who wrote for The Washington Post, Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 02 October 2018 and vanished. Lurid reports that he’d been killed and dismembered soon circulated, but his body has still not been found and initially, the Saudi Arabian government denied his death. There was, as McGrath says, very little to photograph.
Then on 15 October, Saudi and Turkish officials were allowed in to inspect the building, and McGrath, along with many other journalists and photographers, went along to photograph the development. “We didn’t know when the inspectors would arrive, but everyone was there,” says McGrath. “All the press was trying to get something, and this guy was holding them back.”
The man was a member of the Saudi delegate, and McGrath still doesn’t know who he was, or what his role was on the day. But seeing him physically restraining the press, the photographer found a symbol for the cover-up, and took a photograph that’s now been nominated for the World Press Photo of the Year. A week later, the Saudi Arabian government admitted that Khashoggi had been killed.
“It was something unusual – an unusual story,” says McGrath, who’s previously won two other World Press awards – First Prize in the General News Stories in 2013, and Third Prize in the Sports Action stories. “It’s a story about a cover-up, and the dangers of being a journalist. It’s an unusual choice [for a World Press Photo of the Year] but I’m happy – it keeps the story in the news, keeps it being brought back up and talked about.
“There are so many elements to this picture,” he continues. “For example, it’s about press freedom, but it was shot in a country that’s 157 on the Press Freedom Index [a dubious honour Turkey gained in Reporters Without Borders’ annual index in 2018, out of 180 countries, owing to the large number of journalists currently imprisoned in its jails].”
As McGrath points out, in Turkey you can be arrested for taking photographs in the street, and yet he and the other press photographers were allowed excellent access to the consulate because of the traction Turkey could get on the world stage via this story. Khashoggi’s disappearance became “a political game”, he says, and some of the press allowed itself to become implicated in the aftermath.
“A lot of the reporting was based on rumour and fake reports and fake pictures – it was sad to see some big players [in the media] reporting directly on rumours that they obviously had not checked,” he says. “One well-known organisation put out a Tweet about the body being found in a well, which was completely wrong. They had somehow been given a tip from someone. The whole story like that – there were a lot of things from ‘anonymous Turkish officials’.”
“Powerful governments were involved, and the press was given free tips, which they did not always verify themselves,” he adds. “There was a list online of all the false reports [surrounding this story] – some were complete fantasy, completely out there re how he was killed or whatever.”
In this way, this story also became emblematic of “a very odd news year”, says McGrath, in which many news stories seemed to ultimately loop back to governments, power, press freedom, and fake news. For this reason, he says, he can understand why his shot was nominated for the World Press Photo of the Year, commenting that: “In choosing this image, they were making a comment about that.”
And, he continues, the nomination wasn’t a complete surprise, as his photograph had already attracted a lot of attention when it was first published. Standing alongside many other members of the press, he got a shot that stood out – but he’s modest about his success, commenting that working with Getty Images, with its powerful distribution, helped get it noticed, and that ultimately this kind of photograph is down to luck.
“You can be standing one minute one way or one minute the other way, and someone else gets an amazing picture and you don’t,” he says. “That was something that really hurt me when I was young – ‘That guy was right next to me, how did he get such a great picture and I didn’t?’ But now I’ve got used to it. Some you win and some you lose.
“On that day I was with the press, and I was the only one that got that picture,” he continues. “Maybe over time you build up experience and that helps. But I think it’s also just lucky.”