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The Power of Images in the Case of Kavala

Osman Kavala is in prison for more than 1100 days

We all know hashtags and portraits of public figures who ended up in prison innocently. We know their names: Julian Assange, Deniz Yücel, Alexei Navalny, Nassima al-Sada, and we know their faces. Why is that?

This essay focuses on the case of Osman Kavala and how social media is using his portrait to gain public attention.

A brief overview: Who is Osman Kavala? Kavala is a Turkish entrepreneur and one of the most important contemporary Turkish intellectuals. He stands for an open, democratic and progressive Turkey. He has built many bridges with countries around the world through his strong cultural commitments, such as his Anadolu Kültür Foundation, an organization that builds cultural centres in Turkey’s outlying areas.

So why was he arrested? In 2017, he was arrested for the first time on charges of being one of the organizers of the 2013 Gezi parc protests and the attempted military coup against President Erdogan and his so-called Justice and Development Party (AKP) in July 2016.1 Two years later, the European Court of Human Rights demanded Kavala’s release.2 The first trial began in June 2019. Without evidence. On February 18, 2020, Kavala was released and later retried. In December 2020 the second trial began. The court of justice demanded life imprisonment. Now in 2021 he is still sitting innocently in Turkish captivity in the Silivri prison as already the German journalist Deniz Yücel.

Not long after his first indictment, solidarity emerged on social media. The hashtags #dearosmankavala or #freeosmankavala were born, official social media pages3 were created, a website with up-to-date information4 and a video campaign were launched.5 Through the speed of circulation, social media users worldwide show their solidarity by using a simple portrait and his hashtag.

As we can see, many campaigns used the image above to bring public attention to Osman Kavala. A closer look at the portrait used in each case shows that it is a simple photograph of Kavala, edited with a black and white filter. He has thick hair and a full beard which gives him the impression that he’s quite healthy. His eyes are looking directly in the camera, which makes him look self-confident and convinced. The corners of his mouth are slightly pulled up.  The portrait shows the recipient an inconspicuous friendly person. So why the campaigns always use this particular portrait of Kavala? Why is it not just the writing of his name or the hashtags mentioned earlier? It is due to the power of recognising a face. Images allow a kind of emotional insight that words cannot convey.6 The campaign teams did not choose the image without good reason. They knew that the recipient, the observer, recognises a face of a person much better than just their name. Pictures create more emotions than writing. Especially close-up portraits of victims evoke compassion in the viewers, it is called “identifiable victim effect”.7 Through the minimal information of the so-called “mixed media”,8 the viewers tend to ask themselves: What has Kavala done? What about his family? Is he in good hands? Why is there such media attention on him? Without context of the text and hashtag, the visual content would barely transport any information. Knowing the aims of campaigns we can make assumptions about the reaction of recipients in the case of Kavala. The recipients will read up on the case Kavala and every time they see the image, they will remember the story of Kavala. Maybe they will update their knowledge about it, maybe they will repost the image on social media. To put it short: An image of a face commits to memory and connects with the individual story of Osman Kavala. Through the frequent use of the visual it becomes somewhat iconic.  According to German filmmaker Fatih Akin,9 the launched video campaign aims to create a narrative, which is described by the answers of the following questions: Who is Kavala? What are his positions? Why is he in prison? In the same interview, the intendant of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki theatre, Shermin Langhoff, stresses the importance of international publicity, both recalling that public relations in the Yücel case contributed to his release.

The decision to use this portrait could be lead back as well that the imprisoned shows his face. He embodies resistance. Persisting with one’s opinion. Standing up and being counted. Even though Kavala is in prison, public attention is putting pressure on the Turkish government. Kavala is not an individual case. This year alone, 13 journalists10 are unjustly imprisoned in Turkey, according to Reporters without Borders. With the attention Kavala is receiving around the world and the knowledge that he is not alone, he will not be forgotten. His face and case are representative of the Turkish government and its constant censorship of the media and the cut back of the freedom of expression in Turkey and could therefore have a negative impact in matters of foreign policy, e.g. the question of Turkey joining the EU or not. So how long will the Turkish government continue violating human rights? 

The case Kavala evokes questions of freedom and expression and the importance of protecting culture. So thanks to images and their iconic character, the case Kavala will continue. It symbolically stands for the repressions of the Turkish government and the mistakes of the judicial machinery. By giving visibility and a voice to otherwise oppressed and censored people, it shows again that images matter politically.

#freeosmankavala #dearosmankavala


1.  https://www.osmankavala.org/en/judicial-process, accessed January 31, 2021.

2.  Press release- Chamber Judgments, Judgment Kavala v. Turkey – detention of Mr Kavala, a businessman and human-rights defender. December 12, 2019,  http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng-press?i=003-6587080-8727102, accessed January 31, 2021.

3. https://www.instagram.com/freeosmankavala/, https://twitter.com/FreeOsmanKavala, accessed January 31, 2021.

4.  https://osmankavala.org/en, accessed January 31, 2021.

5.  https://artistsunitedforosmankavala.com/, accessed January 31, 2021.

6. Roland Bleiker, “Mapping visual global politics”, in Visual Global Politics, ed. Roland Bleiker (London, New York: Routledge, 2018) 1-29.

7. Ibid.

8. William J.T. Mitchell, “Pictorial turn”, in Visual Global Politics, ed. Roland Bleiker (London, New York: Routledge, 2018) 230- 232.

9.  Maximilian Popp, Fall Osman Kavala, “Die türkische Regierung begeht jeden Tag ein entsetzliches Justizverbrechen”. In: Der Spiegel, June 3,2020,  https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/fall-osman-kavala-die-tuerkische-regierung-begeht-ein-entsetzliches-justizverbrechen-a-3748784c-f64a-4932-ac68-10715578e386, , accessed January 31, 2021.

10.  https://www.reporter-ohne-grenzen.de/barometer/2021/journalisten-in-haft/, , accessed January 31, 2021.


Written by L.F. Ott. Short intro:
– What do you identify as? she / her
– What is your guilty pleasure? Listening to Alexander Marcus
– Which book do you recommend? Brett, Lilly: Lola Bensky, Berlin 2012.

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  1. In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…

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