The “Picture of the Year” That Violates the Humanity of Its Subject

April 11, 2024

We shouldn’t see Shani Louk like this.

Two weeks ago, a group of photographers from the Associated Press took first prize in the Pictures of the Year competition, run by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, in the Team Picture Story of the Year category for 20 photos of the Israel-Hamas war. The featured photo is of Shani Louk, a 22-year-old German-Israeli civilian. She is lying facedown in a truck bed, partly naked and most likely dead, being driven through the streets of Gaza in the hours after the Oct. 7 massacre at the Nova festival. The men in the back of the truck brandish machine guns and grenade launchers. One of them casually drapes his leg over Louk’s exposed torso while another looks straight at the camera and points emphatically at her.

What are we to make of the choice to recognize this photo with an award? On the one hand, the image reflects the way much of the left has viewed Israeli victims following Oct. 7—disposed of, expendable, taken away, gone. On the other hand, it captures the paradox that has allowed Hamas supporters to simultaneously deny that atrocities against women took place on Oct. 7 while celebrating them in real time. Ultimately, the choice to center and honor this image also perfectly captures the intersection of antisemitism and misogyny, as well as the way elements of the left and Hamas are joined in their shared antipathy toward Jews.

Some have suggested that the picture of Louk is deserving of recognition as part of a long tradition of war photojournalism, a practice that stretches back to Mathew Brady’s images of the dead at Antietam. That was the position of Picture of the Year director Lynden Steele, who claimed that the image captures “the harsh realities of war” and therefore merited the award. We understand the merits of war photojournalism, just as we understand that awarding a photograph a prize is not equivalent to celebrating its contents. But the picture of Louk is not war photojournalism. It was taken not during wartime but during a terror attack. The men in the back of the truck are not “fighting.” They are not even wearing uniforms or insignia. They are returning from a pogrom with their spoils, to publicly desecrate a captured corpse. Louk’s family was able to identify her only because viral real-time video of her body paraded through the streets allowed them to recognize tattoos and dreadlocks. Bone fragments from her skull were later found at the Nova festival, suggesting she had been killed at the site.

The casual verbal slippage between war photojournalism and crime scene photography is manifest in another simple trick: In announcing the AP’s win, the award organizers reposted the unblurred image of Louk on their Instagram page but neglected to include her name. Her name did, however, appear in the prize announcement on the award website, in which the chosen caption says it all:

That caption reorders the sequence of events, as if the subsequent bombing of Gaza were the cause of the cross-border attack. In this telling, these militants found themselves with a half-naked female “body” in the bed of their truck in some accident of war. It distorts the fact that Louk was murdered during a cease-fire and her corpse taken as bounty. Deliberately conflating Hamas’ sexual violence, kidnappings, and burning of women and children with acts of combat gives away the game from the start. However you opt to perceive it, an atmosphere that celebrates this image sets back decades of international legal advances recognizing the dignity and rights of women.

Perhaps the photo merits an award by sensitively capturing the plight of the victims of Oct. 7? That was the line the AP’s vice president of corporate communications, Lauren Easton, gave following international outrage about the prize. “Documenting breaking news events around the world—no matter how horrific—is our job,” she said. “Without AP and other news organizations, the world would not have known what was happening on Oct. 7.” But that is also untrue. In this case, the perpetrators filmed their own acts in viral videos captured on GoPros and livestreamed them to the world, screaming “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”) and driving through the streets. In other instances such footage was shared with the victims’ families using the victims’ own phones. One could well ask whether we should consider a journalistic image of one of the most photographed violent pogroms in modern history to constitute essential newsgathering or whether we should instead regard it as prurient rubbernecking. Yet the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute saw fit to reward the impulse with a prize.

Images of war can be aimed at producing empathy for the victim or anger and disgust toward the perpetrators (or both). Indeed, most of the photos that garnered this prestigious prize do just that. This photograph does neither. The victim, Louk, is an object, almost illegible as a person, reduced by her captors to a trophy. The perpetrators delight in that fact. Most remarkable about the picture is the extent to which it manages to simultaneously deny the crime and celebrate it. On its face, the photo and the caption accompanying it evince no interest at all in how she came to be a “body,” instead observing the time-honored adage invoked whenever a female victim is involved: “She deserved it.”

This elision—from recognizing war photography in Gaza to celebrating gender-based violence during a cease-fire—isn’t subtle. The photo depicting Louk and those who chose to use her undressed body as a symbol reflect and reproduce the response to the plight of Israeli women in progressive circles. When word started to get out about the gender-based sexual violence committed on Oct. 7, international institutions, feminist organizations, academia, and progressive media offered three different though often overlapping responses. The first was justification of the acts perpetrated by Hamas as resistance and liberation. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler, for example, recently objected to referring to the events of Oct. 7 as a terrorist attack, describing them as an “uprising” and “an act of armed resistance.” Outside Columbia University, a sign has been hung for months now—it reads: “Resistance by Any Means Necessary.” The second response has been denial, either of the acts themselves or to their systemic and premeditated nature. This manifested in a deafening silence for months after the attacks, then with media outlets “just raising questions” about whether the attacks had been spontaneous rather than systematic, cloaked in claims about Hamas’ respect for and reverence of women’s bodies. The third response recognized the violence inherent in the acts but criticized those highlighting the crimes because it perhaps risked weaponizing rape to justify Israel’s campaign in Gaza. But justify it, deny it, or bothsides it—rape is still rape. Diminishing it for transactional political reasons is still gaslighting.

It is undeniably essential to photograph war and famine and the suffering in Gaza as a means of keeping a public record. But the Picture of the Year prize opted to recirculate an image that was not captured or contextualized in print as an indictment. Louk’s family has explicitly asked, many times, that she be remembered alive and happy. When told that the photo of his dead daughter had won an award, Louk’s father, Nissim, said he hoped that the attention the award would garner for the photo would serve “to inform the future,” but whether that reckoning will happen remains unclear. Louk’s grandmother Nicole Louk Naccache decried not just the award but the public silence, posting Thursday: “My dead granddaughter stars in a photograph that won a prestigious photography competition. And the world is silent! … Tossed as a victory trophy for terrorists and vile photographers.”

Meanwhile, the AP has been named in a suit filed by survivors and family members of the massacre for knowingly supporting terrorism by purchasing photos from Hamas-linked journalists. The AP has also been sued separately by Louk’s family for employing freelance photojournalists who broke through the Gaza fence with the terrorists, then documented the killings. When asked why it would work with a photographer who presumably had material knowledge of crimes committed that day, the AP has chosen to insist that it “had no knowledge of the Oct. 7 attacks before they happened.” The organization has yet to explain why it is acceptable to have knowledge of the attacks and the attackers as they happened.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 1 that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The award-winning photo of Louk, snapped by a freelancer along for the ride, suggests that human dignity can be stolen twice, once with impunity and again for journalistic accolades.