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Culture, Reality

The Aesthetics of Revenge

by Sean O’Toole / 02.05.2011

“After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.” It is Sunday, May 1. Late night. President Barack Obama, he wears a dark suit and crimson tie, is standing behind a lectern speaking into two black microphones. There is no hesitation as he delivers his message to the camera setup in a White House corridor, no wavering, no awkward review of the facts written onto a cue card. “The death of bin Laden,” he offers in a voice subtly distinct from his usual oratorical speaking voice, “marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.”

Obama’s image rich speech (it begins with reminders of “hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky” and “black smoke billowing”) is received like a pop song. Its chorus – “they killed Osama bin Laden” – prompts dancing in US streets. As the announcement makes that evolutionary jump from breaking news to news to historical fact, which on television and the internet is a rapidly accelerated process, Obama’s announcement is buttressed by a phalanx of familiar images: Bin Laden in military fatigues, Bin Laden firing a Kalashnikov and Bin Laden riding a stallion.

In the half hour cycle that it takes television news media to catch its own tail, the bloodied face of Bin Laden, fatally shot in the head and buried at sea, is only briefly imaged. This brevity is striking. What is it about this feral image that so perturbs news editors? Why the obvious self-censorship? Surely it has nothing to do with image quality – that myth has been roundly detonated in the last decade. So, instead of showing Bin Laden’s prone body, his brown eyes seemingly plucked from their sockets by scavenging birds, viewers are repeatedly shown Obama, stern-faced, delivering on his promise.

Obama White House

Cut to Americans waving flags and chanting “You-Es-A”. Cut to journalist Robert Fisk telling Al Jazeera about Bin Laden’s obsessive interest in Russia and America. Cut to BBC, which has archival footage of Kenyans digging through the rubble of the US embassy in Nairobi. Cut to Sky News, which has an image of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s twin skyscrapers tentatively predominating over downtown Manhattan, one of them smoking.

During his late-night speech Obama remarked, “we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world”. He was expressly referring to “the empty seat at the dinner table” and parents absent from post 9/11 family photos, but, somehow, his statement also speaks to the Bin Laden’s death portrait. This untamed image, which cannot be sanitized by Photoshop and speaks directly to the celebrations in Times Square, is reinforced rather than denied by the strange brevity that accompanied its display in the hours immediately after the announcement of Bin Laden’s death.

Before his death Bin Laden was a wanted man. No news there. Shortly after 9/11 the CIA sent a crack team to Afghanistan. “Capture Bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice,” the CIA’s J. Cofer Black ordered his agents. They failed. At the time of his death, there was a $25 million bounty on Bin Laden’s head. In a widely circulated FBI wanted poster Bin Laden is described as a thin man of considerable height, with brown hair, brown eyes and olive complexion. The accompanying black and white photograph shows an unsmiling, bearded man wearing a white turban.

In the grim death portrait that only fleetingly comes into focus in the mass media, Bin Laden still has a beard. His hair is short-cropped; it looks more black than brown. He is pictured with his mouth agape, his teeth showing. He has no eyes. Perhaps it this last observation that disturbs the most, the missing eyes. “Eyes,” wrote painter Marlene Dumas in 1992, “no matter where the gaze is directed, have strong impact.”


In 2006, Dumas painted a portrait of Bin Laden. The most wanted fugitive in the US is posed three-quarters and appears ponderous, deep in thought. I say appears. The work is titled The Pilgrim, which necessarily colours our reading. Holy men don’t look stoned, nor do we think of them as bums. The portrait is a close up. “This method achieves an intimidating and confrontational effect,” Dumas has said of her serial interest in showing her subjects – some real, others not – upfront and personal.

Of her interest in portraying “the reality of war and terror” – Dumas has also painted images of Islamic torture victims and Arabic men – the painter once remarked: “When I paint a ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’ (the description depends on your point of view) […] my painting does not clarify politics or explain a cause. I paint my anxiety.” You could say that news editors around the world have done much the same in the hours since Bin Laden’s body was taken into custody, unexpectedly delivering them a picture that was harder to treat than the headline.

It is not difficult to understand the impulse to censor this image. The aesthetics of picturing Bin Laden’s death in the mass media is not without ethical consequence. I suspect that is why his death portrait is being treated with kid gloves. To splash his broken face across news media is little different to exhibiting the head of your enemy on a stake. It is also needlessly provocative. Bin Laden’s death portrait does not make for easy consumption, but – and this is one of those instances where the conjunction needs to be more than just bolded and italicised – this doesn’t justify tiptoeing around its existence. As an image, it exists. It cannot be denied. We must confront it; perhaps, even try to understand it.

*Opening Image Credit: Marlene Dumas, The Pilgrim, 2006, oil on canvas, 100 x 90 cm. Private

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