The power of an image

15 May

President Obama’s decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden’s corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.

Revealingly, Obama chose to frame his decision in both practical and moral terms. “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool,” he said. “You know, that’s not who we are.”

Others – most notably more hawkish Republicans and their supporters in the US media – argue that the images should be released precisely to show that this is “who we are”: an America that wants the world to know in the most graphic terms what happens to those who attack their country. Photography, for better or worse, possesses this immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed forever.

History has shown that the intended message of such photographs can backfire. Back in 1967, when Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia by troops loyal to military General Barrientos (with the help of the CIA), his corpse was photographed to leave the world in no doubt of his identity. With his unkempt hair and beard, the dead Che resembled the dead Christ in a Renaissance painting. In his biography of the insurgent, Compañero, Jorge G Castañeda wrote: “The Christ-like image prevailed … It’s as if the dead Guevara looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering.”

Could an image of Bin Laden’s bloodied corpse send out the same message to his followers? Almost certainly, and we will no doubt see that power soon enough when the photographs leak out into the media, as they surely will – with or without Obama’s sanctioning.

More problematic for Obama’s moral reasoning is the fact that other graphic images of the aftermath of the attack on Bin Laden’s compound have already been leaked, showing the bloodied corpses of unidentified men. Why is it acceptable to show these bodies but not that of their leader, a figurehead for global terrorism? Indeed, why show such graphic images at all?

In her recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, the American academic Susie Linfield argues that, in the internet age, we must regain our ability to distinguish between gratuitous images of violence and hardship – including “the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings and other forms of barbarism” – and more morally defensible images of war and conflict, however explicit.

“If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn’t merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat,” she writes. “We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be.” One senses that Linfield would support Obama in his decision, especially at a time when many Americans are in no mood for painstaking and self-searching moral debates of this kind.

Interesting, too, is the group photograph of President Obama, Hilary Clinton and their retinue of advisers in the situation room watching Bin Laden die via a camera fixed to a soldier’s helmet. It gives some indication of the horror of the moment, if only in Clinton’s look of shock and disbelief as well as in the president’s stern gaze. Why, though, was this image released? Perhaps because it shows no trace of celebration or gloating – “That’s not who we are” – but instead a grim acknowledgment of the horror of what is happening in all its cruel radiance. It is a fascinating document, for what it doesn’t show us as much as what it does. That is the often-overlooked power of great photography: to suggest rather than to shock.

Source.


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It’s no secret that we are a visual culture. The glow of a turned-on television illuminates every house nearly every night. Photo galleries are regularly the best viewed elements of many media sites. Pictures pack power. And politicians know this. That’s why the debate over whether or not to release what has been described as a “gruesome” photo of Osama bin-Laden’s body is so intriguing.

At the moment, the iconic image of the death of bin-Laden is this one:

Taken by White House official photographer Pete Souza, it shows President Obama and much of his national security team receiving an update on the mission that led to bin Laden’s death.

The image powerfully portrays the tension and seriousness of purpose of the people gathered in the room. And, while the picture wasn’t taken with politics in mind, the message that it conveys — serious people doing a serious thing — is politically powerful, reinforcing the idea of Obama as a strong and sober leader.

Releasing the photo of bin Laden would wipe the above image out of the American consciousness and replace it with one that is significantly more jarring and potentially divisive.

Source.

Also interesting:

Amazon.com ReviewSince the early days of photography, critics have told us that photos of political violence—of torture, mutilation, and death—are exploitative, deceitful, even pornographic. To look at these images is voyeuristic; to turn away is a gesture of respect.With The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield attacks those ideas head-on, arguing passionately that viewing such photographs—and learning to see the people in them—is an ethically and politically necessary act that connects us to our modern history of violence and probes our capacity for cruelty. Contending with critics from Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht to Susan Sontag and the postmoderns—and analyzing photographs from such events as the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, and recent terrorist acts—Linfield explores the complex connection between photojournalism and the rise of human rights ideals. In the book’s concluding section, she examines the indispensable work of Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, and Gilles Peress, and asks how photography has—and should—respond to the increasingly nihilistic trajectory of modern warfare.A bracing and unsettling book, The Cruel Radiance convincingly demonstrates that if we hope to alleviate political violence, we must first truly understand it—and to do that, we must begin to look.

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