photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics

The killing of Osama Bin-Laden is another of those issues in which politics is located in or around the image. However, the debate about the rights or wrongs of releasing the post-mortem photograph obscures the fact that any such image will inevitably have been staged.

I’ve read the many arguments calling for the release of a picture of the dead Bin-Laden (see Pete Brook’s post of many links, as well as Joerg Colberg’s and Michael Shaw’s considered statements). In principle I would opt for openness and transparency, but in this instance I have a difficult-to-articulate unease about the calls for the Obama administration to disclose what they have got.

My unease stems from the fact that the killing was not an act of justice. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway, just to be clear) this is not to suggest Bin-Laden should be mourned. The issue is how we think about our actions in the world. Watching crowds in the US come out on the streets to celebrate a killing is to see an ironic reversal. It’s easy to imagine many of those individuals scorning mourners at, say, Arab funerals for their ‘barbarism’ in the exultation of death. I imagine the release of the post-mortem photograph in this context, where it might function as the bounty hunter’s evidence that the outlaw is no more. I’m not sorry Bin-Laden is gone. I just don’t feel the need to see an image that will close the circle that began with George W Bush’s call to get him ‘dead or alive’ and effectively render the operation as just.

The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame.

The White House’s release of a series of photographs on its Flickr stream showing the President and his national security advisers in and around the Situation Room (see above) was a fascinating but carefully managed insight into the conduct of Bin-Laden’s killing. If the post-mortem photo were to be released, it would also be part of this managed stream. But it was a small detail around another picture in the Flickr stream, of President Obama addressing the media, that showed how central the photo-op is to politics.

In a fascinating account, Donald Winslow reveals how some of the photographs of the President delivering his television statement were “from a re-enactment of his 11:45 p.m. EDT speech, performed minutes later strictly for the benefit of still cameras.” The image shown here is from one of the official White House photographers in the room during the speech. Excluded from the live event were photographers shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times and a freelancer who was filling the ISP (Independent Still Photographer) pool photographer’s slot. As one of the four photographers present recounted:

President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Many newspapers overlooked that detail in the photos caption and ran it as record made live. When they discovered it had been staged there were some angry responses, but as Winslow reported “the ‘photo op’or re-staging of a Presidential speech for the benefit of still cameras has been a long-standing practice for various administrations.”

The concern about the production of this picture deflects attention from a wider issue. If we take a step back we can see that most of the formal moments that feed news photography are theatrical and thus effectively staged. Things like a politician’s press conference, campaign speech, factory tour, walkabout, and voter meet-and-greet take place in order to produce images. (As someone who used to work as a Senator’s press secretary in Australia, I’ve participated in the organisation of these various devices). If the lens is only trained on what is in front of it that construction is missed. Those that are railing at this moment from Obama’s speech generally fail to expose the endemic conceit of daily politics and its visual coverage.

Some photographers do pull back, take in the wider scene, and show how our pictures are often of staged events framed in particular ways. From extreme situations we have Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and other examples of what some in photography inelegantly call a “goat fuck.”

From domestic politics, I recall (but cannot at the moment find) some great David Burnett photographs showing US presidential campaign stops where a vast auditorium hosts a tiny crowd of party faithful who, when pictured, look as though they fill the place. From the UK we have this great image (above) by Simon Roberts from his 2010 Election Project (which he discusses in a podcast here, starting at 51:30). This reproduction cannot do justice to the details of the large print version, but it nonetheless shows Brown in the center being interviewed by a television crew in the ‘press pen’ while other journalists and staff mill around the edges, greatly outnumbering voters. This image shows the context of a campaign stop, and happened to record one citizen, Gillian Duffy (centre, on the footpath in a blue skirt), starting to shout at the Prime Minister, precipitating an encounter that escalated into a major political crisis for Labour.

Images that address the construction of images, pictures that reveal the pervasive nature of the photo-op in our political culture, are essential to photography’s critical purpose. Calling for more of them, as opposed to a post-mortem document, might be the best response to a week in which the political and the visual have once again been enmeshed.

UPDATE 7 MAY 2011: I have revised paragraph 7 above in line with the Jeremy Nicholl’s final point in his first comment below. It now makes clear the official photo used above is from the live speech, and that it was the five news photographers who had to capture the reenactment. Jason Reed of Reuters wrote about these events on the Reuters blog and included a photo he made showing the others news photographers capturing the reenactment. After initial publication he also added a final paragraph clarifying the reasons he was asked to work this way.



First photo: P050111PS-0210. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo: P050111PS-0918. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Third photo: Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency). 122x102cm. Copyright Simon Roberts.

Fourth photo: Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama Bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Copyright Reuters/Jason Reed.

10 replies on “Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics”

[…] Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics | David Campbell The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame. […]

Staging points to the dynamic I think is significant – performance, theatre, enactment. We see that in individual images where the wider view incorporating photographers shows us the process of creating the real. And it is also what drives the use of documentary images (like the situation room photo) in selected, managed photo streams. Its about creating the event visually, and creating it in particular ways. But, as I’ve stressed, staging is not faking, and should help us get beyond the limiting framework of the real/un-real.

I’m with Jeremy on this one. I agree with what you’re saying but I’m not sure ‘staged’ is the right word for the context of the second photo? Maybe new language is needed.

Thanks for the comments Jeremy. I’ve updated the post to clarify the final point you rightly make, and added a link to, and picture from, the Reuters blog that revealed the reenactment (unfortunately the Winslow post did not carry any links).

On the broader point, I’m not connecting the situation room photo and the re-enacted speech photo as the same. The later is actually faked – it purports to show something that it isn’t, even if the convention behind it is understandable and the impact on meaning minor. The situation room photo, in the meaning I am developing here is staged, in the sense that it is part of the managed stream of images that were used to make the issue visible. It is genuine and historic, but part of the managed staging of the even nonetheless.

Overall I am trying to articulate how staging is at the heart of political coverage and is not reducible to those rarer moments when faking takes place. Even when the events are real and before the lens the release of those image can be understood as staging.

I don’t disagree with either your thesis or the conclusion, however you’re overlooking a critical difference between the photo of Obama supposedly making a statement and that of the situation room.

The former is as you say staged, in every sense. Obama is [re-en]acting for the cameras. What he is doing has no other purpose than to provide an image for the news wires: “it’s strictly for the benefit of still cameras”.

None of that holds true for the situation room photo. What’s happening there is not staging, but a certain amount of control, in the sense that a single official photographer has been given access. But the event that’s being photographed is real, it’s not being performed for the benefit of the camera. And the subjects are not acting, as Obama is in the statement photo. That’s clear from the facial expressions: these are people deeply involved in the business in hand.

Really the photos couldn’t be more different. The re-enacted statement photo has no more value than any staged photo-op by a c-list celeb: it’s function is exactly the same. On the other hand the situation room photo is a genuine, and historic, news image.

Incidentally I’ve just realised that the Obama statement image you’ve used is the wrong one; that’s the Pete Souza frame that WAS shot during the real statement. The one you need is the re-enactment shot by AP et al.

An elegant analysis, David. I recently re-read Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (for unrelated reasons) and when the debate about killing Osama settled on the issue of whether the photo should be released, I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect illustration of the idea that all social (and political) relations are mediated by images. Debord’s formulations strike me as rather dated now but the whole of the political, legal, and ethical arguments about extrajudicial killing are now clearly mediated by this absent image — the spectacle is so advanced now that the circle is closed by not providing the image.

Comments are closed.