The Washington Post

The power of political images

Update 2:25 p.m.: President Obama announced in a taped interview with CBS that he would not release an image of Osama bin Laden. “That’s not who we are,” Obama said in the interview, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney. “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies”. He added: “We don’t need to spike the football”

Original Post

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.

The complicating factor for the White House is that there are a significant number of Americans who literally want to see the body — no matter how disfigured — as a point of closure for the anxiety-laden decade that bin Laden began when he orchestrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

By not giving in to that desire for visual proof, the White House runs the risk of being cast as circumventing public opinion — never a good thing for a politician.

Not releasing the photo would also give fodder to the conspiracy-minded about whether or not the man we killed really was bin Laden. (For the record, there seems to be a relatively small group of people who think bin Laden was not actually killed so releasing the picture to respond to that group is not likely to be a pressing concern for the Obama Administration.)

It’s a complicated question that, frankly, may not have a “right” answer.

This White House — more than any almost any other that came before it — understands the political power of images. Throughout his first two plus years in office, Obama’s advisers have used Souza’s photos and the president’s Flickr page to create a visual narrative that casts the president in a very favorable light.

The release of an bin Laden death photo would be a considerable departure from that visual narrative but may be necessary given the deep passions the terrorist engendered among the American public.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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