Osama Bin Laden Debate Illustrates the Power of an Image

If you’ve ever questioned the power of an image, consider the current news cycle. The US government has decided it won’t show images of the dead Bin Laden.

If you’re wondering why, the answer is simple. A photograph–an image–is an incredibly powerful thing. It can be a tool, intentionally or incidentally. It can tell an entire story of a month, year, decade, or a generation, captured in perhaps just 1/1000 of a second. An image change a life, end a war, start a riot, bring someone joy, inspire a revolution, open or close a debate. An image can move the world.

My point has nothing to do with the governments treatment, or lack thereof, of the Bin Laden image…should or shouldn’t, left or right in America, good versus evil, or any other debate along political lines. That is not my point, and this is not the forum here for those discussions. Don’t go there. Instead it has everything to do with the proof of the power of an image. Therein lies the only reason that this debate rages on. If it weren’t powerful, there would be nothing to say.

My point is a simple one and specifically this: if you’ve ever doubted if, in this modern era with technology moving a light speed, whether there is still respect and value for the 130 year old concept of a photo, think again. If you’ve ever wondered if the power of a photograph is waning, think again. The power of a photograph is at an all time high. Sometimes we… need these reminders.

Consider this as you go to work with your camera.

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56 Responses to Osama Bin Laden Debate Illustrates the Power of an Image

  1. Trudy May 5, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    Great post. So true. It seems the the argument of the photograph itself has usurped all others arguments political, legal and otherwise. This proves the importance of the photograph, what it means and why people want to see it versus those who think it should never be shown.

  2. Clint Davis May 5, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    Very very very very very good point.

  3. Scott Webb May 5, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    This is seriously an amazing point! This gets me thinking and gets me pumped.

  4. Mr.Falcon May 5, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    I can totally agree and I am super happy that you spoke the Ideology of a photo on this Blog. I have friends who are angry and upset, some that are happy that the photo has not been released. But I think most photographers, will understand more than anyone why it has not been released, or if it will ever be.

    Chase you are an inspiration.

    Thanks Your friend

    Josh.

    • Masa May 5, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

      Why would photographers, non-military photographers in particular, understand more than anyone else?

  5. Nate May 5, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    The image from the Situation Room illustrates this point just as well.

  6. Venura Herath May 5, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    WORD!

  7. Dave Vickers May 5, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    There was an interesting debate on this in the UK yesterday. They raised the point that an image of Che Geuvara’s body was released to try and break his status. It failed and the iconic image of Che Geuvara alive still appears on t-shirts and posters now.

  8. Scott S May 5, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    I’d agree but the even more powerful would be the video of it all going down. And with video being the big feature on most new cameras, I’d say that’s also telling of where the industry is going.

    • Jenika May 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

      I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot and don’t know where I fall on it. Videos take up more space in your life – you have to sit and watch them. Unlike a photo which can hang on your wall and enjoy over and over in a matter of miliseconds each time, you have to engage with a video more, and for longer. I think that’s a major disadvantage for video.

      I agree that the EXPERIENCE of a video holds huge promise for the way we remember and capture things. I’m just not sure that – in an age where everything moves so quickly and we have to fight for time and attention now more than ever – whether video will ever trump stills. I guess we’ll see! :-)

    • Anonymous May 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

      Agree. Video is far more powerful than photos.

  9. Michel May 5, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Amen!

  10. Scott in AZ May 5, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    But what is the point of a photograph that is never seen?

    • Kyle May 6, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

      Maybe the fact that it was kept from going public shows how powerful said image was…

  11. Lily Luna May 5, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Very insightful..

  12. Jonnathan May 5, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    One of your best posts! (IMO)

  13. David Johnson May 5, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    The strength and power of an image, will drive people to great lengths. What I mean is, somewhere out there, there are people trying desperately to hack into Govt databases to get these Bin Laden images, and release them for whatever political or fame motives that matter to them.
    At some point in the future, they will probably succeed, and the power of those images will have an effect, and the ‘finder’ will be recognized.
    My point is; The drive to find them, shows the heroin needle need for images of importance, and that within every one of us is a wanton desire to see them, right or wrong.
    My question is; Can we learn to let this go? can we one day evolve beyond the need to see images like this?

  14. TimE May 5, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Well Played.

  15. Jason May 5, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    No matter if this image ever comes out or not though, it will still bring on doubt in this time and age. The down side to modern technology ask the question, as powerful as an image can be, are they still credible? Is the shot real? Is it photoshoped? Is it staged?

    No longer do we go back to the roll of film we have to show proof.

  16. Shane Srogi May 5, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    I think the power of the still image is stronger than ever. The power to tell a story. It’s not just in a monthly magazine (although there is a place for that). It’s on your desk. It’s in the palm of your hand. It’s the democratization of photography. Do you have something to say. Pick of a camera and say it. At it’s heart the still image is about a story and if anything people want to hear more stories not less.

    If I can add to the narrative I’d like to say that images have the power to preserve. There is always someone who will look at a place and see $$$. A forest, a mountain, a river or species as pure profit. Hopefully the people that see the beauty of a Yellowstone or a Yosemite will put more weight on the scale than the profiteer. Your local park, the one you bring your family to for a Sunday picnic, there is someone who wants to see that as a condo development.

    I just finished reading Bill Keller’s interview with Joao Silvia and Greg Marinovich at the NY Times blog LENS. They wrestle with photojournalism and the power of the still image. I agree with Chase the power of a singular image is not in doubt.

    -Shane

  17. Nick May 5, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Fantastic point. The part I don’t understand is why is there so much demand for the photo? In this day and age most people with good Photoshop skills can make a very passable fake one anyway. I work in fashion retouching/photography and know nothing u see on magazine covers is close to the original raw photo anyway. So why would a photo “prove” he’s dead. I tell myself it’s because most people don’t know how far photoshop can go but I’m not sure if that’s the case. Even talented video guys will tell u compositing someone to be in a video isn’t that hard either. Especially if it’s low light night vision style video that I imagine this footage would be. I guess it’s at the point where we have to ask “what does prove things these days?” you have to be there? Dunno. Great post Chase as always!

  18. Jim Denham May 5, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    Fantastic point Chase! That had not even come to mind. There’s also another side that has not been discussed and that’s the validity of the photo itself, as in what if it were manufactured and not real (photoshop and such). That not withstanding, I totally agree with you and am glad you pointed it out!

  19. Dana May 5, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    I’m with Scott in AZ on this…..what’s the point (besides none) of a powerful/moving photograph if nobody is “allowed” to see it?

  20. David Clarke May 5, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    You make a very good point.
    You would think that just the information provided by the American Government would be enough to satisfy people’s curiosity about this whole situation; with the explanation of the op itself, but because of our information-saturated world, people want more. Even if the image was released, people wouldn’t be satisfied until a video from the satellite feed was released. Even if THAT were released, people would want to find out exactly which SEAL it was and hear him talk about it and gain notoriety. We inherently live in a culture where things Aren’t Good Enough. We will always want more, and it starts, in this case, with a photograph that would perhaps be one of the most important in recent American history, if not in American history.
    The fact that they aren’t releasing it goes to show just how important this image is. People want to see. If it didn’t matter, people wouldn’t care that is isn’t going to be shown.

  21. TimR May 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Agreed, very good point that I missed in all the talk about what to do with it. Another point is that there’s a ton of “backstory” out there to the photo. Without the backstory, it would just be a photo of a guy with a bullet hole in his head–not nearly as compelling.

  22. David Clarke May 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    (I would just like to say that is good to see people discussing the importance of one single image rather than getting into a heated and opinionated argument. Good to see, and I look forward to reading this over then next few hours!)

    • Jason May 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

      David, I couldn’t agree more.

  23. Adam Mayfield May 5, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    I often times forget that I’m documenting history when I’m shooting. I forget that this event or time will never happen again in this exact way. When I actively think about it, it gives me chills to think that 20, 50, 100 years from now, someone may look at my work the way I look at photos from the ’30s.

  24. Moritz May 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    a picture can say more than 1000 words. maybe the government shouldnt have said in beginning that there is a photo. i think if they want to proof they could take a screenshot from the live video feed they did

  25. Jesus Hidalgo May 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more. Well said.

  26. Ashley Smith May 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    You absolutely nailed it! Loved reading this post.

  27. Raji Barbir May 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    I would like to point out a crucial difference between what you said and what I believe to be the greater truth:

    A photo has and always will have the POTENTIAL to be powerful.

    That’s very different from saying that a photograph IS powerful.

    The fact is, we are inundated with photography. As a result, we become desensitized to photography as a whole and are therefore more likely to miss the occasional, incredibly powerful one that does come along.

    This particular picture of a dead Bin Laden? Well of course it’s powerful… It’s the picture of a very very very very very VERY specific dead guy. That kind of context carries huge weight with it.

    If it were a picture of a random dead Iraqi civilian? Well, we have a buttload of those don’t we? Nobody’s debating whether to release those, because they’re already out there and you can see them anytime you like…

    In other words, in this particular case, the debate over whether to release a picture of the dead Bin Laden has more to do with context than it does with the image itself.

    And that’s a more narrow definition of whether a photograph is powerful than you described.

    • Alessandro Rosa May 5, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

      I kind of agree with Raji. I will however say that photos of random, non specific “Dead People” that came out of Rwanda, et. al. were what caused the international community to take notice and act. Those in power around the world were aware that the killings were taking place. It wasn’t until images started to be circulated that action was actually taken. I guess that may be part of Chase’s point.

      • Raji Barbir May 6, 2011 at 8:05 am #

        Agreed, Alessandro. I should have made it more clear that I do think it takes photography to get things moving, and that they have incredible power. I don’t think that could be denied.

        I was just objecting to an absolute, all-encompassing statement about photography.

  28. manuel May 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    agree with you! as the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words

    • Mrfalcon May 5, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

      and sometimes they paint more.

  29. Chad May 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    You cut right through all of it and found the good. Again. Thanks.

  30. Chad gold man May 5, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    I think you’ve summed up things nicely today.
    Kudos.
    Chad

  31. Alessandro Rosa May 5, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    Chase, as you are an image maker, I understand your point, but I think that it goes beyond that. It is the statement, the thousand words, that drive the impact. We have seen riots over Op-Ed Cartoons and over the burning of the Quran. People have protested movies without ever seeing them or songs without listening to or understanding the lyrics. It isn’t just the image, but more what that image represents that moves people, positively or negatively.

    The power of releasing that photo has more to do with a perception of respect, or lack there of as the case may be, to spark anger and violence. If the photo ever does see the light of day, either through the Freedom of Information Act or Wikileaks, the impact will most likely be muted because of the official stance taken now that we would not, as a government, release the image as it would be an insensitive and disrespectful thing to do.

  32. jetgreen1 May 5, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    im jealous of the shot..(both of them)

  33. theshadesofgrey May 5, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    I agree. The “power of a photograph” is what I’ve been trying so hard to apply to every picture that I try to take. “Consider this as you go to work with your camera.”— I definitely will. Thanks for these reminder Sir! Cheers!

  34. fas May 6, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    AWESOME stuff chase, I am sure no one, and really no one thought from this perspective.

  35. Mara May 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    As always, thank you for lifting the craft of photography to better place. Nothing but admiration for your work.

  36. Jake May 9, 2011 at 5:41 am #

    An image is as powerful as the mindset or interpretation of the person that “reads” it.

  37. Faz May 10, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    Chase, again some very thought provoking comments.

    I guess just how powerful an image can really be has been shown again with reporting that a Jewish newspaper edited out Hillary Clinton of the photo that has been seen worldwide (even us Aussies here have seen it!). The photo was one of those “moment in time” style photos and the fact that such a powerful photo had been edited, for me, further proves your point of how powerful photography remains (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/10/jewish-paper-apologises-hillary-clinton)

    • Kathleen May 11, 2011 at 8:21 am #

      Its nice to know I’m not the only one thinking about that photo in relation to this blog post. Thanks Faz

  38. Anonymous May 11, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    CJ,
    your post made me think of the book The Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs -Moments- by Hal Buell.

    Every time i need something raw to look at that’ll really make me think i read this book and stare at its photos.
    I’d recommend it to anyone! It’s filled with impact-full scenes from our nations history. Many famous photographs can be found inside

  39. Kit Engwall May 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    CJ,
    your post made me think of the book The Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs -Moments- by Hal Buell.

    Every time i need something raw to look at that’ll really make me think i read this book and stare at its photos.
    I’d recommend it to anyone! It’s filled with impact-full scenes from our nations history. Many famous photographs can be found inside

  40. Victor July 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    I think you might be confusing the medium for the message. A photograph is not powerful. Heck, there are so many photographs taken today and shared all over the world, sure they are fun, but also inconsequential (most of them). My point is, that I would like to make a distinction between what exactly IS the photograph — not all photographs are powerful, some more than others… So how do we make this distinction between powerful and throwaway ‘polaroids’? Well, first of all let’s look at this one particular case. A photograph of Bin Laden dead. First, we all know what Bill Laden has been built up to be: the bogeyman haunting America for 10 years. Seconds, it’s a photograph of a dead man. Third a photograph of a Muslim. Take all these things, and try to understand the sociology, anthropology, politics, and religion involved and you understand why this is a powerful photograph. But a photograph of your kitten… not so powerful. So, to conclude, you are wrong: a photograph is not powerful, it’s everything else that is around the photograph that makes it what it is. If photography wasn’t invented, maybe it wold be a paining, or some object belonging to the person. It’s about the signifier and the signified, but if the signified is not powerful the signifier might as well be worthless.

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