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05.04.11

Obama Was Right to Censor the Osama bin Laden Photo

President Obama says he won't release the photo of Osama bin Laden's dead body. Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who was assailed for publishing images of violence, on why exhibiting the dead terrorist would be obscene.

President Obama says he won’t release the photo of Osama bin Laden’s dead body. Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, author of Pictures on a Page, on why exhibiting the dead terrorist would be obscene. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.

Obama made the right decision not to display Osama bin Laden with a hole in his head. We are glad he has gone. The deed of executing justice is sufficient unto itself.

Gallery: Famous Remains

There’s no justification in publishing to convince those who somehow suspect that it wasn’t bin Laden who died in the walled compound. They will never accept any evidence, photo, DNA, the president’s testimony. They live in the fantasy world inhabited by Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G., so there’s always room for one more.

The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage

There are more serious reasons for restraint. There may be force in the president’s argument that such a graphic photo could be a propaganda tool, an incitement to additional violence. Alternatively, it could deter would-be jihadists, who would have to think a little harder when they see the bloodied bodies of Osama's men killed in the firefight in his hideaway, photos obtained by Reuters from a Pakistani security officer and rightly released on Wednesday. The gruesome photographs of Saddam Hussein's dead sons are in the same category.

Those calculations apart, I’d find the exultation of exhibiting the vanquished bin Laden to be obscene, ethically not much different from the Tudors, who liked sticking heads and dismembered torsos around London, or the barbarians of al Qaeda. Obama said it well: “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” It's the jihadists who enjoy celebrating death; we prefer to celebrate life.

The history of exhibiting violence photojournalism is fraught with perplexities. When I was writing a book on photojournalism, I attempted to work out some guidelines. I had been assailed by readers of the newspaper I edited for publishing a photograph of an empty coffin in front of a burned-out car; the dead man was not visible. I defended it as an indictment of a dangerous road, but the readers had a point in asking whether that homily justified the extra grief the image inflicted on the dead man’s loved ones.

There is no question that photographs of violence do cause great distress to many people, and especially parents. Sometimes that has to be accepted—I don't care about the distress of the jihadists!—but to inflict distress at random is to weaken the case for doing it at all.

In the first Gulf War, much abuse was heaped on the editor of The Observer newspaper in London, who published Kenneth Jarecke’s photograph of the charred remains of a soldier incinerated in his vehicle. Even professionals were shocked by the image. Jarecke started getting criticism for the photograph even before he returned home to the U.S. “In fact, when the Associated Press in Dharan transmitted the picture,” he told me, “some editor in New York took it off the wire. It wasn’t even distributed in the U.S. until my agency [Contact Press Images] got it.” Even then, no magazine published the picture. It took a bold magazine editor at American Photo to publish an image, months later, in a discussion of the limits of war photography.

Why did such a simple, grainy, black-and-white photograph arouse such reaction? After all, we had watched with relative equanimity weeks of sharply focused moving color pictures on television of far greater violence. Death may have seemed remote in the celestial glow of a cruise missile departing the USS Wisconsin, or the fastidious crosshairs of the smart bomb, but none of these images had the impact of Jarecke’s single still picture of the skull of the soldier.

Ask yourself whether you would have published it. The photograph shocked because it was a solitary individual in the transfixation of a hideous death. Would it have made any difference to your reaction to know that the corpse was not an American or a Brit in the allied coalition, but the enemy, in this case an Iraqi in Saddam Hussein’s army?

With the missiles we saw hurtling into the night in that war, it had been possible to enjoy the lethal felicity of designer bombs as some kind of videogame. There was no escape from the still silence of the corpse in Jarecke’s photograph. Once seen, it has a permanent place in one’s imagination. Anyone who can replay moving images in his mind has a very rare faculty. The moving image may make an emotional impact, but its detail and shape cannot easily be recalled. The CBS cameraman Jim Helling was in the photographic pool with Jarecke and shot footage of the truck and other bodies, but he asked Jarecke for a print of the still “because that’s the face of war.”

There has to be some fitness of purpose; and a constant of awareness of the capacity of a photograph to excite deep emotions. With the offensive photograph, four questions help:

1) Is the event it portrays of such social or historic significance that the shock is justified? It was surely right and necessary to show the bodies of the Jews murdered by the Nazis. But many newspapers, rightly, I think, did not think the shock justified publishing car crash pictures of the actress Jayne Mansfield, showing her head impaled on a shard of windshield glass and her body lying several feet away on the roadside. But bin Laden? Yes, that would pass the test of significance.

2) Is the objectionable detail necessary for a proper understanding of the events? I think not in the case of bin Laden. We know what happened.

3) Does the subject freely consent? The question is not relevant here, but it often is—when, for instance, you have a photograph of a victim under attack from a knife-wielding thug.

4) Finally, is the photograph expressive of humanity?

Not all these questions need to be answered in the affirmative, but I’d argue that at least one must to justify an image that will shock. I thought the photographs of the contractors murdered and hung from the bridge at Fallujah in Iraq were deeply offensive, but right to be shown as emblematic of the horrors the jihadists were prepared to inflict.

When I discussed Jarecke’s picture with him, he said he was most influenced in his decision to submit it for publication by the fact that the image, though appalling, was nonetheless of a recognizable being. He rejected the idea of photographing the dismemberment he saw on the battlefield; that would, he felt, have served no purpose. It would have dehumanized the individual.

A whole series of photographs can be tested against the criteria I suggested. Ronald Haeberle’s picture of dead and terrified villagers at My Lai were not the gratuitous violence alleged against the publishers. They were evidence of a massacre. They were the reality of war. Similarly, a World War II photograph of the beheading of an Australian soldier by a Japanese officer was horrifying, but testimony to the nature of an insensate cruelty.

By the same token, it would have been better if decades of American editors had not suppressed gruesome photographs of Southern lynchings in the 1920s and '30s; or if someone had had the tenacity and courage of the documentary photographer Carole Gallagher in showing, with the agreement of the subjects, what disfigurement had been produced by two decades of radiation from atomic bomb tests in the American Southwest.

On the same test, however, it was merely to satisfy morbid curiosity to show us the dead Lee Harvey Oswald lying on a pathologist’s table, with the crude post-mortem stitches lacerating his chest. That picture was suppressed but eventually made it into print. I’d guess that the same will happen with the bin Laden and it won’t do more than indulge a prurient curiosity.

Harold Evans is the author of Pictures on a Page, wrote two histories of America, and recently published his memoir, My Paper Chase. Editor at large of The Week, he was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-81 and The Times from 1981-82, founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler, and president of Random House Trade Group from 1990-97.