“I understood that this was a not-too-bad picture.”
Alexander (Sasha) Zemlianichenko
It's hard to pull off a truly distinctive photo at a set-piece event with the world's press also gathered there. Russia's Chief Photographer Alexander (Sasha) Zemlianichenko did just this with a low angle on the big screen of Putin's face, staring down and dominating the audience at Putin's state-of-the nation address March 1. The photo, which graced front pages and websites around the world, wins the Beat of the Week.
Over a 28-year AP career, Zemlianichenko’s accomplishments have included two Pulitzer Prizes: the 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature photograph of Boris Yeltsin dancing at a campaign rock concert, and the 1992 Spot News Photography Pulitzer as a member of the AP staff covering the 1991 Russian coup and collapse of the Communist regime. That package included an iconic photo of the toppling of the statue of notorious secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. For Sasha, his image of Putin glowering over the hall on a big video monitor ranks with those.
“I understood that this was a not-too-bad picture,” he said modestly.
Zemlianichenko is used to photographing Putin at official events. Yet his picture managed to offer a fresh view of Putin, which caught the atmosphere inside the hall as if conveying his hold over the whole of Russia. The image played into a wider perception of how Putin has dominated international news in recent months, with reports of meddling in the US election and wars in Syria and Ukraine, but crucially, updated the sense of absolute power wielded by a leader who had just announced a new generation of nuclear-powered weapons. It wasn't an obvious angle, but the seated ranks of respectful officials gave Alexander his cue, to try to capture the feeling in the room. He left the group of photographers focused on the face and gestures of the real Putin at the podium and sprawled, belly on the red carpet, to get the shot.
“Once Sasha had the best angle, he employed a tool many photographers forget: patience," said New York photo manager Aaron Jackson. "By waiting for the right expression, he transformed a good idea into a brilliant photo.” Zemlianichenko said he was looking for a “good face” of Putin, one that would both reflect the Russian leader and tell the story of his speech. He took 10-15 frames from the carpet, did a quick edit, knew he had the shot he wanted, and asked reporter Vladimir Isachenkov to link it first to the text news story about the speech.
The photo was used extensively by AP newspaper clients. Video shot by a colleague in Berlin shows a newsstand with rows of newspapers on sale – the Financial Times, Die Welt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung among others – all with this photo on the front page. Equally, it was used by a host of international news websites to illustrate the story and tweeted by dozens of news correspondents, including the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse – "Brilliant photo by AP’s @AZemlianichenko;" the Guardian's Andrew Roth – "My god what an @AZemlianichenko shot;" and others who distributed the photo to more than 100,000 Twitter followers – just for starters.
For deeply understanding his subject and producing an image of Putin that both captured and transcended the day’s news, Zemlianichenko earns this week’s $500 prize.