Kadri Gursel kisses his wife after his release from Silivri prison on September 26, 2017 in Istanbul, following a Turkish court order to free the columnist and editorial director of Turkey's opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet. (AFP / Yasin Akgul)

The kiss of freedom

On Monday, September 25, an Istanbul court ordered the release of prominent journalist Kadri Gursel. He had spent almost 11 months in jail on charges of links to terror groups that supporters insist were merely punishment for his journalism for the Cumhuriyet daily that has been critical of the authorities. Istanbul photographer Yasin Akgul awaited his release at the Silivri prison on the outskirts of the city.

When Gursel stepped out through the gates of the prison complex, he went towards his wife Nazire and the couple kissed to celebrate his freedom. Akgul’s picture captured that moment, as the pair held each other in a short but seemingly infinite embrace.

The photo rapidly went viral in Turkey, where newspaper commentators and bloggers celebrated it as an image of optimism in troubled times. The columnist for the Hurriyet daily Ertugrul Ozkok wrote that it was a “beautiful” and “unforgettable” picture that had given hope.

Here Yasin describes how he captured the moment.

Protestors carry a banner of the jailed journalists during a demonstration in front of Istanbul's court house on September 25, 2017 during a hearing in the trial of journalists of the newspaper.Protesters carry a banner with pictures of jailed journalists in Turkey in front of the Istanbul court house that later ordered the release of one of them, Kadri Gursel. (AFP / Yasin Akgul)

Istanbul -- As a journalist, I was very excited to cover the release of a colleague. There have been numerous journalists detained in Turkey over the past few years and to have one released was a welcome bit of news.

We only learned at 11:00 pm that he was going to be freed. I immediately set out for the Silivri prison with my colleagues. It’s already autumn in Istanbul and it was a cold night. Yet I could feel excitement coming from everyone. I'd covered such releases in the past so I made sure to get a spot in front of and slightly to the side of the prison gate, where I was certain to get a clear shot of the detainee. When a white minibus drove up to the prison gates just before 2:00 am, I was ready.

When someone is released from prison, it is absolutely critical to capture the first reaction. The first shot is the one that counts. The first reaction is so important. We are talking here about a person who has been in jail for 11 months. I have to be prepared. So I checked and rechecked my cameras and equipment, to make sure that all would work when that key moment came.

Turkish journalist Kadri Gursel (L) embraces newspaper Cumhuriyet's Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul (R) after his release. (AFP / Yasin Akgul)

Although I expected him to be emotional when he stepped into freedom, I wasn’t expecting a kiss. In previous cases that I covered, the people released embraced loved ones, rather than kiss them. So I was expecting to capture emotion, but not a kiss. When the Cumhuriyet cartoonist Musa Kart was released in July he had made a gesture of spreading his arms out wide to the supporters who had come to meet him, a picture I also took.

When I saw Gursel kissing his wife, I rapidly moved to the the left and then a bit more to the side to get a better angle. I must have taken more than forty frames.

You can prepare as much as you like but it still matters how the event unfolds. It all depends on the situation taking place before your eyes. You then have to decide quickly whether to take pictures close-up or go for a long-range shot, or if you have to make rapid movements to get the shots from different angles. There is pressure and you don't have the luxury as a news agency photographer of being able to miss something.

As is normal in these situation, I didn’t know if I had a good photo. I just kept on shooting and once it was over sent my selection of pictures to my editors. When I did, I didn’t think that I had THE shot. It was only much later that night that I saw it was a topshot and had gone viral on the Internet. I could not believe it. I've covered many events over the years but never had there been such a reaction on social media.

The kiss. (AFP / Yasin Akgul)

I think part of the reason why it was a hit was because people had grown sick and tired of seeing violence and bad news in Turkey. And here was some good news for once, a warm and beautiful image to share.

I try and put myself in the position of someone who has been in prison for 11 months. I suppose that I would react the same way if I had not seen my wife and my child for 11 months. The first thing I would do is want to kiss them. I have a wife and a six-month-old child whom I have not seen for two months as they've been visiting family abroad. Distance increases the longing.

The picture is special to me because I can relate to Gursel both as a journalist and as a husband. If you’re a journalist in Turkey, you can find yourself in the same situation as him. I put myself into his situation at that moment. I expect and hope to take similar images when other journalists who have been arrested are released and are reunited with their families and friends.

Despite his release, Gursel is still charged and on trial with the next hearing set for October 31. Four other staff members of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, including its editor-in-chief, remain jailed in the same case. On his release, Gursel vowed he would continue to write. “A journalist should push his limits in order to remain a journalist,” he said.


This blog was written with Stuart Williams in Istanbul.

(AFP / Yasin Akgul)