A month after Osama bin Laden is said to have perished in the American stealth-raid, the event remains suspended in the space between fact and fiction.
Not only was there no legal and live capture, no inquiry, no trial, no judgment, no detention, no post-mortem, no public burial, no due process and no Geneva Convention — there was not even a photograph. It was a death that happened in camera — not “on camera.” One of the most historic fugitive chases in history concluded last month without a photo-finish.
Through the past decade, billions around the world were told their security was mortgaged to an apparition called Osama bin Laden, the only evidence of whose existence being the periodic video clips he so thoughtfully released himself to the media. Those images provided legitimacy to an unrestrained and ruthless war that affected hundreds of thousands, besides familiarising us [through unwitting leaks] with some exceptional visuals of reverse American savagery in the high security prisons in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Yet, the billions who were drawn into this “us” versus “them” war, have no clue of what happened on the night of May 2, in Abbottabad, when they were told this “threat to international security” had been eliminated. A month after bin Laden is said to have perished in the American stealth-raid deep inside Pakistani territory, we are still devoid of the evidentiary, memorialising photograph. It is a case of a man who “lost face” along with his life. The event remains suspended — akin to a photographic print incubating in developing solution — in the space between fact and fiction.
The role of the photograph
It is as if the U.S. establishment has suddenly turned coy. Can there be anything more damaging to their reputation as an administration that has historically preferred the use of arbitrary, lynch-mob justice than pictures from Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq or Gitmo? The sudden display of mock restraint even as they swagger and exult in their act of derring-do is disturbing. Their ostensible reasons for not releasing photos of the slain Osama, of course, are that the photos are “gruesome,” can be “inflammatory,” and “not in U.S. interest” — that the photos will be “used against us as propaganda.” To cap it all, was President Obama's pious proclamation, “We are not in the business of bringing out trophies.”
This raises some interesting questions on the role of the photograph in contemporary discourses around death. Freddy Alborta's brutal photos of the slain Che Guevara, taken in 1967 in the laundry house of the hospital in Vallegrande in Bolivia, established that death. The 2004 pix of a slain Veerappan released by the Special Task Force, though controversial about the manner of his being killed, laid to rest any debate about his being alive. The 2009 Sri Lankan Army photos of Velupillai Prabhakaran's seemingly severed head obligingly being held against his torso were gruesome indeed, but did not cause much of an international ripple. In each of the above cases, the respective photos are suspected to have been manipulated. Yet, it is interesting that despite being notoriously doctorable, the photograph today constitutes the sign of the “clinching” evidence. Osama's death, however, seems to have been denied the historic necessity of the camera's intervention.
At the same time, the image that is destined to be iconic and what the world was allowed to see was that of all the President's men (and women) gathered in the “Situation Room” of the White House, their eyes glued to the “live TV feed” of the Osama elimination as if it were home entertainment. This cluster of a dozen of the topmost CEOs of America Inc. obviously possessed the privilege to witness an action inaccessible to the eyes of the rest of the world. Besides being paternalistic, it is a clear statement of power — where powerlessness is the censored vision.
Regulating the visual field
It is a phenomenon that should alert us to two significant issues — one, the contemporary power of alpha states to effectively regulate the visual field and, two, what Roland Barthes called the relation between “photography and death.” Both these concerns have been brilliantly dealt with earlier. Susan Sontag reflected on the just released photos of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (torture) in Gitmo in “Regarding the Torture of Others” (NYT, May 23, 2004), which was probably her last piece before she passed away. Likewise, in an inspired analysis, Judith Butler examines “Torture and the Ethics of Photography” in her book “Frames of War” (Verso, 2010).
They both refer to the concerted effort of the U.S. during the Bush period to “regulate the visual field” through offering photographers access to events on condition “their gaze remained restricted to established parameters of designated action.” In essence, this meant the effective control over “affect” by regulating the visual modes of participation in the war. Under conditions of modernity, the photograph has come to substitute for the event to such an extent that it is now not merely a visual image awaiting interpretation; it in fact, constitutes the interpretation itself.
In a conclusive way therefore, without photographic evidence today, there is no event, no atrocity. The evidentiary photograph is built into the notion of atrocity. The evidence constitutes the phenomenon. The circulated photograph becomes the public condition under which we feel outrage and construct political views to incorporate and articulate that outrage. Contrarily, transcending mechanisms of restrictions, photographs of lawless killings can also constitute a “disobedient act of seeing.”
Many of these critical issues concerning the use of photographs are linked to the question of when and who we are permitted to grieve over and, conversely, when the loss of a life is designated ungrievable. It is related to notions of who is — or is not — deemed “human” and thus entitled to human rights. The age of the photograph has ‘parallelly' been an age of revolutions, assassinations and terrorisms of all kinds. Here, an “enemy” denied a “death by the photograph” is someone pushed out of the “frame” within which the state exercises its forcible dramaturgy of power.
If there is a critical role for visual culture during times of war, it is to humanise pain and loss rather than memorialise triumph. Former U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, justifying censorship of pictures from Abu Ghraib, told CNN on May 8, 2004 that “publishing photos of torture and humiliation and rape would allow (the Taliban) to define us as Americans of a kind.” It is obviously a similar fear that now restrains Obama from releasing the images of an Osama “shot-through-the-face.”