Osama Bin Laden, 9/11, and the Importance of the Photograph

by - Sunday, May 01, 2011

I am not sure I have much to say about the political resonance of Bin Laden's death. Though I have some serious political leanings, I am not sure how to process this moment. Though I found the president's speech strangely moving, I can't exactly feel joy at death (though maybe I do feel a certain peace? Is that what people are feeling? Closure?). I also can't help but feel anxious at the threat, so often repeated in the last hours, of retaliations.

More than anything, I am struck by how resonant the image is at this moment. Obama's speech at its most tear inducing recalled the images of 9-11: the clear sky, the billowing smoke, the empty chair. Diana Taylor wrote about the impulse toward images and the multiplicity of spectatorship that was awakened by 9-11. She noted that though the area quickly became a "no photo zone," many New Yorkers reacted to the tragedy by taking photographs. To Taylor, New Yorkers did this to conceptualize the trauma of the present by saving it for the future. After the dust began to settle, photographs became the surrogates for the missing, a conduit for mourning. Something that seems unspeakable and undocumentable was actually memorialized by many, through the photograph which performed.

When we read this last quarter, I was suspicious of Taylor's argument, seeing it as baring a mark of her own very personal politics, but today, watching the crowds, I get it. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer is droning on the few details available, while on the split screen people are climbing trees, crowding around patriotic sites, chanting, and hanging American flags. And taking pictures. The space is littered with flashes. 1 in every 10 people is holding their arm up, holding a camera or a phone. At Ground Zero, people are trying to get photographs of the flag hanging over the ruins, to show they were there, to both mourn and celebrate. The newsman just said "you would never think people would gather to celebrate at Ground Zero," but I think the photograph signals the crowd as remembering as part of their celebration. The photograph is a perfect tool for this (insert Barthes, "death embedded in the photograph" quotations here).

I wonder how the image and the photograph will continue to carry the most powerful meaning as the event continues through the week. The pundits keep stressing that America will have to provide "proof" it is Bin Laden to Middle Eastern countries. I can't imagine this won't be a photograph. I also wonder if more images from ten years ago will arise once again. I can't decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I guess if it helps people heal it must be positive in its own way. Maybe I will have a better idea by tomorrow.

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  1. Rejoice at this. Don't feel bad, weird, or guilty. The guy was a devil so to speak. He would have used a nuke if it was available to him.

    Also......don't concern yourself with what the pundits require as proof to present to The Middle East. It dosen't matter. All the proof in the world has not changed the opinion of the "truthers" and "moon hoaxers".

    Anyway..... That was a good piece you wrote.