Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It’s been a while since both the media and the public displayed such a forensic interest in photography, in particular photojournalism. But since last week’s killing by US special forces of Osama bin Laden four images – or sets of images – have come in for intense scrutiny and comment. The Situation Room image [above], first released on the White house Flickr stream; the restaged – or, if you prefer, faked – wire pictures of President Obama’s announcement of the raid; the frat house celebrations outside the White House; and Obama’s later visit to Ground Zero.

All of these have been pretty much analysed to death, but the photograph that has received the most attention is of course the one we’re not allowed to see: that of bin Laden’s bullet-riddled corpse, memorably described by the Guardian as the world’s most incendiary image. One would have to have been living in a cave – unlike the man himself – to miss the brouhaha over whether or not the White House should make public the pictures held of the dead Al Qaeda leader.

Some might claim that a photograph of bin Laden’s corpse isn’t photojournalism at all of course: but anyone who does had also better be prepared to write off a substantial body of photography they previously regarded as such. They can start with Mathew Brady’s American Civil War, and proceed through George Rodger’s Belsen, Ronald L. Haeberle’s My Lai massacre, Freddy Alborta’s dead Che Guevara and beyond.

The most popular argument for releasing the pictures was that of proof: they would provide evidence that bin Laden really was dead. But that’s just tosh: there may well be valid reasons for releasing the photos, but evidence isn’t one of them. In the age of Photoshop the still image constitutes a very poor standard of proof: even if the genuine images were released many people – indeed some of the same people who claim their withholding indicates a conspiracy – would immediately set about trying to prove they were fake.

What’s bizarre about all this is that if people truly wanted visual proof of Bin Laden’s death then a much higher standard is available – or at least as available as the withheld still images, and from the same source. The White House claimed that those in the Situation Room watched a live video feed of the raid in progress. While there’s been some subsequent fudging of just how real-time and detailed the feed actually was, you can bet that at least some of the assault team were wearing helmet cameras, and by now the US administration has a full-blown multi-camera snuff movie in their possession.

Yes, video can be faked, but nothing like as easily as a photograph; and yes, all of the arguments over whether to release the still images would also apply to the video. But those arguments haven’t occurred, because while everyone obsesses over the still images apparently nobody gives a hoot about the video. In fact the only serious demand to see the video has been from the Associated Press, who have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see both photographs and video of the Abbotabad raid and bin Laden’s subsequent burial at sea.

All of which leads to a very obvious, if paradoxical, conclusion. At a time when people trust the veracity of photography less than ever before, the one thing they demand as incontrovertible evidence is…a photograph. So next time somebody tells you photojournalism is dead ask them how they feel about the bin Laden video.

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2 Responses to “Photojournalism Is Dead. So How Come Nobody Is Demanding To See The Bin Laden Video?”

  1. […] Next time somebody tells you photojournalism is dead ask them how they feel about the Bin Laden video. […]

  2. Seems there is no video:

    That doesn’t explain why there’s no-one asking to see it. I’m pretty sure the footage before and after would be interesting. But still, the management of the message/s around this whole episode has been bizarre.

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