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Mesut Hancer holds the hand of his 15-year-old daughter Irmak, who died in the earthquake in Kahramanmaras. Image Credit: AFP

Kahramanmaras, Turkey: It was a moment encapsulating the unspeakable pain of the Turkish earthquake: a father holding his 15-year-old's hand, the only thing visible after her body was crushed by concrete.

Mesut Hancer sat alone in the freezing cold on a pile of broken bricks that were once his home, oblivious to the world and overwhelmed by grief.

His daughter, Irmak, was dead. But he refused to let her go, caressing the fingers peeking out from a mattress the girl was asleep on when the first pre-dawn tremor struck on Monday.

There were no rescue teams. Survivors were frantically clawing their way through the rubble to find loved ones, bits of their homes thrown out onto the debris-strewn street.

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"As I took photos, I was so sad. I kept repeating to myself, 'what immense pain'. I couldn't stop myself from crying, I was speechless."

- Adem Altan | AFP photographer

Bedframes lay on top of shattered balconies. Torn clothes and toys told the tale of lives lost.

It was too late for Irmak, one of nearly 20,000 people confirmed to have died in the most powerful earthquake to strike Turkey and Syria in nearly a century.The confirmed death toll in Turkey rose to 16,546 on Thursday

But Adem Altan, a veteran photographer with AFP who rushed to the scene from Ankara, could not take his eyes off the still, silently mourning father.

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Civilians look for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings as Mesut Hancer (C, orange suit) holds the hand of his daughter Irmak. Image Credit: AFP

He trained his camera on Hancer from 60 metres (200 feet) away. It was a delicate moment. But instead of shooing Altan away, the father called him in.

"Take pictures of my child," Hancer called in a low, trembling voice.

'I was speechless'

The father wanted the world to see his - and his nation's - grief. And it did.

The AFP photograph appeared on the front pages of major newspapers across the world, including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.

"As I took photos, I was so sad. I kept repeating to myself, 'what immense pain'. I couldn't stop myself from crying," Altan recalled.

"I was speechless."

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Mesut holds the hand of his daughter Irmak who died in the earthquake. Image Credit: AFP

Altan asked Hancer his name and then his daughter's name.

"He was speaking with difficulty, so I could not talk to him too much," Altan said.

Altan could not ask too many questions because everyone needed to observe silence to hear whether there were survivors underneath the rubble.

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Adem Altan took the iconic photo. Image Credit: AFP

A photographer for 40 years, including 15 with AFP, Altan knew that the photograph represented Turkey's pain.

But its global impact surprised him. It has been shared hundreds of thousands of times online.

Altan has received thousands of messages from people worldwide, wanting to offer support.

"Many told me they will never forget this image," he said.