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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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  1. Thishiwe says:

    Uh, you know the death photo is a fake right?

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  2. Shirley says:

    That is a pisspoor fake

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  3. MMMM says:

    Osama was a millionaire who gave up a life of luxury to defend his religion\people..If he were a white South African he would be fighting the ANC goverment and be a hero..people hate to admit it but they realize that in a million years they will never have the balls to take on world superpowers to defend something they believe in..he always said that the 911 deaths could not even be equated to the thousands of people killed in Iraq and Palestine..he will always be a legend

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  4. luke says:


    gotta say, sterling journalism guys!

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  5. Neil says:

    Well written, thank you.

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  6. Sean says:

    Eish! Talk about fluffing the penalty. It brings to mind Asamoah Gyan. At least the Ghanaian striker didn’t suffer from hubris, which is what I displayed thinking news had lapsed into history. Mea culpa. Still, the issue of aesthetics and ethics remain. “A hundred per cent of people are not sure, they want to see the body,” a man is being quoted on Euronews, right now. It has emerged that the White House viewed the Bin Laden operation in real time – there is a devastating photo issued by the White House showing the Obama administration in a huddle, looking at something off-frame, Hillary Clinton holding her mouth. Meaning: the battle and fatal headshot has been recorded, in other words, transformed into an image. At some point, it would seem, an image of Bin Laden in death will have to produced. This takes us back to the issue of “the censorship and suppression of images that would prevent us from being confronted with the reality of war and terror”. The quote is from the philosopher Boris Groys, who has some interesting stuff to say on iconographic images.

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  7. Che says:

    Osama was a hero who was fighting a war People die in war,its sad but its reality..he was not fighting for money. He had millions. Its easy for people to celebrate his death and Hi Five each other in their townhouse security complexes but this man was no coward.You are.

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  8. Dwight says:

    MMMM & Che – Hitler also fought “a war”, “for what he believed in”. Does that make him a hero?

    How you formulate your beliefs which you fight for is what defines you. By your stupidity I can start murdering people in blue t-shits because I believe blue is evil. It’s my “belief”, it’s “my war”, I’m a hero and you are cowards for not killing those in blue! Don’t reason like fucking children.

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  9. dudie says:

    watch them hit pakistan in a few months – mark my words.

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  10. anon says:

    thats a fake :/
    probably Osama did not even really exist in real life though, just a puppet for an excuse to go to war… who knows, we will never know the truth.
    now his death is an excuse to pull out of war and say “we won”. And really I doubt his death will be the end of Al-Queda, hello, they killed Jesus but his life still impacts people 2000 years later. Hitler too.

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  11. Mel says:

    Very powerful piece

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  12. skelem vir dwelms says:

    @MMMM he was a rich kid fighting the very same people his family worked with building their fortune – the Saudi royal family, the Bushes, et cetera ad nauseum. fuck him.

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  13. Andy says:

    This fresh from Fox News… “black man kills elderly religious leader!”

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  14. !!!! says:

    Lets hope Iran deploys their nuclear weapon and let the survivors start afresh and ban religion worldwide. Its hard to believe that so may people have died just so that people can try to prove that their god has a bigger dick than other peoples god..When all this is done and the world is reset, people will realize that Osama was the figure who ultimately brought about this change

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  15. Anonymous says:

    “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.”

    Ah yes photoshop, we cannot deny your existence. Can we have some clarity as to why the issue of it being a fake is being tiptoed around right now? That, as an image it doesn’t exist? That it can be denied, ignored and perhaps even berated?

    It seemed like, you know, the whole crux of this article.
    ‘Oh, it’s a FAKE? Damn, I should have been able to tell by the pixels and having seen a lot of shops in my time. Oh well, fuck it, lets go ahead anyway!’

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  16. Seriously? says:

    Nobody here is a ‘fucking legend’ and nobody is right. Killing is never right. Not when hitler was doing it, Osama or U-ES-AY. Its a big circle jerk of death, and noone ever really wins.

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  17. Andy says:

    Sean didn’t know it was fake when he wrote this… his reason still stands

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  18. Anonymous says:

    Sean sucks at his job, but we’re reaching so deep now that we’ll just ignore it when a journalist makes a critical error.
    But i respect your head strong gusto.

    I am curious: Do you think seans opinions he expressed when writing this, things like being annoyed and waxing philosophical cause other professional news establishments didn’t run with his previous golden picture he secreted off the internet, which then developed into his commentary about the self censorship of societies etc, should be remotely relevant, since he formed these opinions by being judgemental of the professioanl conduct of news outlets in choosing not to run a fake picture?

    I dont know so much.

    I mean, you cant comment on societies censoring themselves from images that they dont have, can you?
    Re-reading his whole conclusion with the knowledge that the image is a fake makes him sound like an idiot. maybe thats just me.
    I think the point was specifically being made that the image was being CHOSEN, for some self indulgent reasons, to be ignored. When really, those other places were just better at checking facts before running with them.

    But Sean had a perception and he was going to hop and that high horse and ride it right into the river if he had too.

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  19. K says:

    Fair enough Sean didn’t know it was a fake, why didn’t the editor fact check? Talk of fake pics was doing the rounds on Twitter & the Guardian UK quite early in the day. And now that you do know, putting an editor’s note on the article would be the thing to do.

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  20. Anonymous says:

    The editors note should read: In typical mahala journalistic fashion, our lad went and got himself opinionated! Should the fabricated indignation be based on fact, these would be Seans opinions and complaints with how society reacts. They dont really, but pretend they do to make this article work please… He didn’t know at the time!

    Hey sean, your opinions on society have a lot of weight.

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  21. Andy says:

    So angry, so anonymous… like writing your life’s work in piss on snow.

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  22. Andy says:

    I edited the article, thought it was a legit pic. Honest mistake. But it’s still a good piece.

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  23. Anonymous says:

    it’s thats the analogy you want to use Andy, it makes my writing instrument my penis, my words urine and your site melting snow.

    I dont usually get too attached to my wee anyway.

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  24. nissim says:

    2 questions:
    1) how many anonymouses (anonymice?) are there?
    2) are they all hating, opinionated, a-holes

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  25. Anonymous says:

    Nissim these are the answers you seek:

    1) Like Nissim, there is only one. And yet we are so different too. By attaching your monikier ‘Nissim’ to your comment, you express a bravery and rational thought of mind i could not even concieve. In fact, since we all know it’s the holy ‘nissim’ or ‘tim’ or ‘douce’ dropping knowledge bombs in our life, we rest a little more peacefully! Clearly, with such defining names attached these are the opinions on the mahala comment stream that must be filtered, for prosperiety!
    1) Yes, we are, but I am hoping to use your example here – where you judge with malice and arrogance to express passionate personal opinion, as an example of how to live a more balanced life, and offer mahala readers the opportunity to be more like you!



    The only reason people feel you should attach a name, and in those cases a specific one, is so they can weigh and judge themselves against your social standings to better gauge their response to your opinion.

    Andy regularly undermines the integrity of his own feature by doing IP Checks and calling people out, and fluctuating his love hate relationship with anonymous comments, which hinges on his personal position on the article in question.

    Say something he likes and we’re his good little pets working as he always intended.
    Attack something critically and we’re angry at the internet / fat goths and hiding away while having or ips checked.

    I’m making an analogy for america right now too. I dont have a photoshop to back that opinion up though, damn.

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  26. Andy says:

    it’s angry on the internet! Dammit, have I taught you nothing?!

    Hey NIssim, this is all the same Anonymous, at least all from the same IP. I run the site, and the way my dashboard works is that I can see all the new comments and the IPs. So I can see this Anonymous is angry and posting regularly as anonymous from the same IP and from there make the assumption that this is in fact all the work of one person. This is also a good example of why in the next incarnation of Mahala, “users” – those who are registered to receive our free print mag and weekly newsletter – will have a profile and a login and will be able to comment freely and unmoderated (among many other new perks), while comments from Anonymouses and trolls who are unregistered will have to be moderated and that’ll happen a bit slower. Invariably it’ll mean that we start trying to focus these comments under the stories towards being a service, either to the magazine or to the culture at large. A space to criticise, debate, consult, entertain, discuss and negotiate. But no more rampant denigration and playing for attention. This is what we pray…

    Anon is right in one way. We did create the system. But the system no longer serves our purpose. So we’re changing it

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  27. mallz says:

    By the look of things, the only person showing emotion in that room is her. cos she knew its phcked up. killing is never right, no matter what.

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  28. 7803255145082 says:

    ok isnt the real question why they assasinated him rather than put him on trial /interogated him?i mean come on-and now the 911 trials are being held in secret -well a few chosen journalists are allowed but the judge has a mute button which he used many times on the first session-what where they saying?is this justice?

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  29. Sean says:

    @ anon (you don’t mind me using the diminutive, I hope?). You assume too much. Riding a high horse? Come on. In true Mahala style, I arrived galloping on a manky Shetland pony. Demagogues tend to prefer svelte black stallions.

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  30. dudie says:

    guys – there were thousands of publications that ran the picture. cut the guy some slack. fuck, im gonna stop coming here because of anonymous cunts, or ill just never go below the fold to read this shit, it really makes me anxious.

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  31. Rigatone says:

    Andy, Anonymous posters are your bread and butter, my boy. Take away their anonymity, and you take away about 90% of your comment board posters. Think wisely before you fuck up on this “next incarnation” of Mahala. It’ll be kind of sad to have stories with zero comments under them. The writers will feel underappreciated.

    Another thing – moderating comments? This is one for the books! “Hi, I’m Andy. Either you say what we want you to say, or we’ll moderate the shit out of your comment. We’ll moderate your comment so hard that shit won’t get the prestige of being featured in the “melting snow” that is my website.” Seriously? Moderating comments?

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  32. Andy says:

    Rigatone… we’ve thought long and hard… we’ll step softly softly and see how we go.. but a lot of the time these comments divert as oppose to focus people’s attention on the issues. Instead good work becomes fodder for the bitchy and gutless.

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  33. Andy says:

    this thread excluded…

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  34. kantbelief says:


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  35. vernetroyer says:

    Fakery runs right through 9-11 according to Charlie Sheen’s Black Ops crowd. Every image demands a leap of faith unless we are there to see it taken or take it ourselves or are willing to believe what we are told we are seeing.

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  36. Andy says:

    of course if you’re registered you can still post under your funny pseudonyms…

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  37. Moose says:

    Anon or non-anon aside, you should put a post-script at the end of the article to let Sean comment on the new information about it being fake and what that means to him and his article. It’s no good having that only in the comments…

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  38. whatever says:

    psycobable,i like the idea of democratic trial with human roghts and such for guess democracy became a dicktatership for religeous penisses.

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  39. US of Arseholes says:

    Nice one Andy, I’d stopped reading the comments section during the past few months because of the kak thatwas being written…

    Regarding Osama….Emmanuel Goldstein anyone? What’s baffling me is the almost total acceptance by most media (non-mass media included) of the US administration’s word that they killed him. Isn’t this the same government with a loooong track record of dishonesty when it comes to rather important things (the Iraq invasion) springs to mind? Why the total acceptance of their word (without any proof) now?

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  40. yeah says:

    it seems anyone who questions anything these days is labelled a “conspiracy theorist” ….wtf-the mind is like a parachute-it works best when open

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  41. Anonymous says:

    Psssst: Andy, the new Mahala: A lonely place. Remember the days when you couldn’t keep up with the IPs of your comments, cause there were so many?
    Now I come in, make 4 comments in 4 different articles and 5 minutes later you’re all over my shit.
    Flourishing? Floundering… I dont know, one of those F words anyway.

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  42. Sharief says:

    Grow some balls guys. You all sound like little girls commenting about kak. Fake picture. So what the fuck. At least the dude can write. And at least he is doing something. Everybody needs to be a little more kinder withe their words please. Do you all kiss your mothers with that dirty mouths. Jesus. Its not that hard to be nice. Smile motherfucker, smile.

    Because most of you guys reading this has alot to smile about. You got petrol in your cars and money in your banks. And Im sure some of you guys have really nice pads as well. So cheer the fuck up and smile. Unless you guys want to use these comment boards to vent because your white and have small penises. Then i get it, keep on keeping on. Its all good.

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  43. Michael Smith says:

    Writing about Slovenian artist Miha Strukelj’s interest in television coverage of the first Gulf War, Igor Zabel says, ‘Just as in the Gulf War, images in our society are used to both control reality and hide its traumatic dimensions.’

    Into the gap between Sean’s two articles on Mahala, one produced while he (and, I would venture, much of the rest of the world) believed the death photo of Osama bin Laden to be real, and the next produced after the image had been exposed as a fake, falls an entire thesis of possible motivations for ‘faking it’.

    From Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ and its Neoclassical echo, Jacques Louis David’s ‘Death of Marat’, through to this latest instance of mischief with the image of America’s Antichrist, one senses a shift in the reasons why the veracity of the death image needs dialing down. For artists Michelangelo and David, the chief drive was that the martyr (Jesus and his French Revolutionary corollary, journalist Jean-Paul Marat) necessarily had to be imaged with self-sacrificial ecstasy. Blood and gore wouldn’t do: the transcendence of each subject precluded this.

    Why, then, this contemporary aestheticizing of the image of the violently killed? The USA would surely not wish create a transcendent martyr image of its number one enemy?

    The answer lies, of course, in the space between violence and ethics. It may be that, as with CNN’s representing the first Gulf War as a ‘smart’ war, a series of highly-focused strikes making up a clean and ethically just conflict, this latest image needed to maintain the USA’s moral high ground. Both Obama and the UK’s David Cameron seemed to be at pains to stress that bin Laden wasn’t so much killed in revenge as he was neutralized, tactically removed from the equation for the greater good. Their interest in maintaining the appearance of ethics throughout this process was palpable.

    Against this backdrop, a grisly image wouldn’t work. For the emotional consent of the majority to be obtained (and here, remember Chomsky), the image settled upon, the shopfront of this assassination, needed to be plausible but stop short of traumatic.

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  44. dwight says:

    @Anonymous. So the Whitehouse has chosen not to release the images because they’re “too gruesome”.

    News outlets have seen the bodies of Bin Laden’s men and have chosen not to show them for the same reason.

    It would seem that Sean’s views on society actually do have some weight. Don’t you feel like an utter cunt now?

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  45. US of Arseholes says:

    Yo Andy, I’m all for people calling others cunts, or fucks, or whatever being deleted from the comments thread. That goes for me too as I’ve done it in the past. So sick of negative energy that flows from the mahala comments section now days…

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  46. amafutakama says:

    CNN showed graphic, bullet riddled bodies which were confirmed as belonging to the guys who were “murdered” along with Osama…(images apparently purchased by Reuter from one of the security guards who conveniently had a 12MP Digital Camera with him and had the time to sneak around the debris and play journalist)…anyway these were broadcast right after a Piers Morgan show filled with propaganda about how “gruesome Osama pics…not worth seeing and closure…and no one wants to incite violence….blahblahbla”…then BLAM…they show us Osama’s buddies with their heads blown off…
    What we perceive as news and reality is actually another hollywood production…switch off the tv and drink castle lite! hahaha

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  47. Anonymous says:

    looks like a make up job to me

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