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My Take: Which photo will bin Laden be remembered by?
Will bin Laden be remembered by the contemplative image used by newspapers this week?
May 5th, 2011
04:38 PM ET

My Take: Which photo will bin Laden be remembered by?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Images matter.

They matter to Greek Orthodox Christians who see the power of God in icons. They matter to devotional Hindus for whom the key moment in worship — darshan, or “sacred seeing” — comes when you look an image of the divine in the eye.

So the question of whether to release the death photos of Osama bin Laden is not a trivial one. It affects how bin Laden will be remembered — as a shahid (martyr), as “a mass murderer of Muslims" (as President Obama called him on Sunday night) or as something else altogether.

I think the president's decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse was a good one. In this era of digital photography and Photoshop, photographs do not prove much. And they prove nothing at all to conspiracy theorists.

So circulating a photograph of bin Laden bloodied by U.S. troops would almost certainly do more harm than good, not least by fueling the perception that the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks is a martyr for true Islam.

But the absence of a death photo does not mean there will not be photos to remember bin Laden by. In fact, the iconography already seems to be emerging, and, at least for me, it is troubling.

The Time magazine cover art of Bin Laden with a red X over his face, along the lines of Time's May 7, 1945, cover of Adolf Hitler X’ed out, presents a mug shot of sorts of the jihadist hero.

But the most commonly circulating photographic image seems to be the one that ran on the cover of the New York Daily News (under the headline “Rot in Hell!”) and the New York Post (under “Got Him!”).  It also appeared on the covers of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, and on many other covers worldwide.

While the Time mugshot shows bin Laden looking straight into an imagined camera, this other image depicts him, bearded and turbaned, looking off into the distance - perhaps out into the future, or toward God. The spirit of the image is contemplative rather than combative, and the mode is spiritual rather than militant, as if we are intruding on a private moment this man is having with his maker.

When I saw this image, I was reminded of another iconic image: Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ.”

This image, which according to its publishers (Kriebel & Bates) has been reproduced more than 500 million times, depicts Jesus looking a bit farther to the side, but he, too, seems engaged in contemplation. Once again, we onlookers are made to feel that we have intruded on his private dealings with the divine.

The setting is more luminescent than in the bin Laden photo. In fact, the halo effect is unmistakable. But in both cases what we are witnessing is religious iconography reminiscent of Catholic images of the saints or Hindu images of the divine. I do not know why newspaper editors around the world are choosing to run this image, but their choices matter.

Iconic historical events always seem to produce iconic images. The killings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, will forever be remembered by John Paul Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a 14-year-old girl (Mary Vecchio) wailing over the corpse of a student (Jeffrey Miller).

The June 5, 1989, photo by Jeff Widener of the Associate Press of a man standing in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square will forever symbolize that failed uprising in China.

How will we remember bin Laden? That depends on which image takes root in our collective imagination. For now, I am glad that the image of bin Laden is not one of him shot in the head by U.S. Special Forces. But I also hope it is not the image of a holy man who has dedicated his life to God.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Islam • Opinion • Osama bin Laden • Terrorism

soundoff (108 Responses)
  1. donald nowell

    To the men + women who are in the House + Congress.Ya'll are all scared of the TEA PARTY,you get paid three times what the average American gets per year.If the House +Senate ca'nt pass this bill i see no reason for any of you to keep your jobs, we can get people from each state of the 50 we have that i think cando a better job than most of you. We do'nt have to be rich we just need to do whats right for this country.You people put us in this place now get use out of this mess wish i had the money to run for office because if i were there you would hear and hear me good, so get off your ass and do something.

    July 30, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  2. Avser Bastian

    DICTATOR OBAMA = STALIN = BUSH or USA = SOVIET UNION....LEARN WHO, HOW, AND WHY RUINED YOU…FROM 911 TO WHITE AMERICAN REFUGEES IN EXILE SEEKING ASYLUM RIGHT NOW http://avsecbostjan.wordpress.com/ or http://avsecbostjan.blogspot.com WHO/WHY//HOW CREATED SCHOOL SHOOTINGS(Arizona incl.) – HAARP AUSTRALIAN FLOODS(Incl. deliberately busted oil pipe in gulf of Mexico) – LEARN ABOUT REAL HUMAN FLASH EATING MACHINE – WIKILEAKS is CIA – BREAST FEEDING INSANITY PROTESTS – FACEBOOK or CIABOOTH !!? - ESKIMO SARAH PALIN'S "BRIDGE TO NOWHERE" – NWO MULTICULTURALISM SWINE/PIG FLUE SYNDROME – NEWS/MEDIA OR SIMPLY BIG FAT VACUUM WORLD OF LIES !!?? – THE REAL DON'T ASK DON'T TELL, BUT DIE !!! – OBAMINATOR'S FREE HEALTH CARE PLANE or GENOCIDE BASED ON FORGIVE AND FORGET – UN-chef Ban Ki-moon or CHINESE BAN KEY MONKEY(who is he in reality) !!? – NEW WORLD ORDER POLITICAL PARTIES(not there for you, but instead to seal your faith for their own parliament pay$$ scale !!!) EURO DIC TRAITORS vs DICTATORS or what is worse !!? LEARN WHAT DO LIBYA AND EUROPE OR USA HAVE IN-COMMON !! AND FINALLY.....COMMUNISM IN EASTERN EUROPE TODAY IN 2011 !!! "SLOVENIA" TODAY, WHERE COMMUNIST GENOCIDE GOES ON 24/7 FOR CREATION OF GREATER BYZANTINE SERBIA UNDER RUSSIAN FLAG http://sloveniatoday.blogspot.com "SLOVENIA" WHERE GERMANS(also Croatians in Croatia) ARE GETTING WIPED OUT 66 YEARS AFTER WWII OR 20 YEARS SINCE THEIR "INDEPENDENCE"(independence on paper only). Is Merkel truly great diplomat or is simply trading our lives behind our backs with worst enemies(LIBERALISM = RETARDISM = COMMUNISM = IDIOTISM = CRIME = ZIONISM) !!?

    July 9, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  3. Avser Bastian

    COMMUNISM IN EASTERN EUROPE TODAY(2011) !!! http://sloveniatoday.blogspot.com or http://easterneuropetoday.wordpress.com/ OR COMMUNIST GENOCIDE IN "SLOVENIA" WHERE GERMANS(also Croatians in Croatia) ARE GETTING WIPED OUT TODAY IN 2011 UNDER RUSSIAN FLAG AND GREATER BYZANTINE SERBIAN(new Yugoslavia) AGENDA 66 YEARS AFTER WWII OR 20 YEARS SINCE THEIR "INDEPENDENCE"(independence on paper only) JUST AS PREVIOUSLY IN VOJVODINA. Is Merkel truly great diplomat or is simply trading our lives behind our backs with worst enemies(LIBERALISM = RETARDISM = COMMUNISM = IDIOTISM = ZIONISM = CRIME) !!? Visit also DICTATOR OBAMA = STALIN = BUSH or USA = SOVIET UNION http://avsecbostjan.blogspot.com/ or http://avsecbostjan.wordpress.com/ ...TO LEARN WHO, HOW, AND WHY RUINED YOU…FROM 911 TO WHITE AMERICAN REFUGEES IN EXILE SEEKING ASYLUM RIGHT NOW !!! TIME TO DETERMINE WHOSE INDEPENDENCE/AMERICA, WE CELEBRATE TODAY(who want to erase us and denies us the right to exist) !!!

    July 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.