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. LisaDe

    Regardless of various poses he has struck for the camera throughout his life while he was alive he will always be remembered as a dead, mass murdering sob who will not be able to kill anyone else again.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  2. Lettuce Prey

    Dear Mr. Prothero,

    If any photo of Osama Bin Laden looks anything like the image of a saint or of anything remotely divine, I suggest you have your eyes examined.


    May 5, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  3. Susan

    Stephen Prothero sees a contemplative look on Bin Laden's face, spiritual and not combative, in the photo used by the NY Post and NY Daily News. I see a smirk on his face, the same evil expression we saw in the videos he released after 9/11. I don't feel as if I've intruded on his private moment with the divine. I'm glad the Navy Seals intruded on his last private moment on earth.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  4. Barack Osama

    I wonder if he really is dead. Maybe the dems really think this is enough to get their guy reelected? How about a testimony from the wife who was shot in the leg. Something...

    May 5, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  5. PAUL

    BIN LADEN felt he represented true islam, if the rest of islam did not agree with what he did , why did they not report there he was, why did they not capture him, the americans sent a strong message to the terrorist world , they shot ( killed ) him now like the rest of us when we face death , we must account for everything we did knowingly wrong, his eternal rest is not good, not good at all.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  6. Mookooman

    What ever happened to I don't have to look if I choose not to. Hell the blind never saw people jumping 110 stories to their death on 9/11. I watched 9/11 unfold because I choose to do so. Who cares look or don't. If we truly believe that this will add fuel to the fire to kill innocent people please give me a break. I'm sure the Donald will get it released soon enough. What the hell Obama needed to release PICTURE proof of that birth certificate.  He didn't do that for his country his own selfish propaganda is why he needed to do that. I really could care less if it is or isn't. But I bet when gas is $7.00 a gallon we all see the picture of the great mastermind who authorized the killing. I only wish Obama could make decisions that are truly meaningful to this greatest nation on

    May 5, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • charles


      May 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Many who agree with your assessment believe that Obama's birth certificate was a photoshopped fake. Would they believe any photo release of Osama Bin Ladin's dead body? Photographic proof is an oxymoron.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  7. Me

    Religions are man-made.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  8. The_Mick

    Nice article. I agree. People look at space walk videos and claim they see air bubbles proving they're really shot in a pool of water on Earth. People with that level of skepticism would not recognize the photo of a man much older than his previously released photos and with an eye and part of his skull blown off.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  9. Terry

    What makes this Writer think that Bin Laden represented true islam? Thats a crock....

    May 5, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  10. Name*charles

    A detailed identification walk-through by a forensic specialist (maybe several specialists) is not too much to ask for. Record the I.D. process, outlining every method used to I.D. him. Set up a web page that shows all this. Leave it up to the public to go to the web page."Trust us, we got him" isn't tangible enough. I can't believe some of these comments.

    May 5, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  11. Muneef

    Understand your feelings of grief just as you supposed to understand the same for all innocents that suffer due the same old game that has been played for many years now by the war lords at all ends..

    Assure you that Islam did not attack you but rather a certain group or groups that have chosen to use the name of Islam in their plots...for a far reason exceeding our short sights of their intentions... What has Islam gained since this event was pulled? How many Arabs and Muslims had to pay life and blood since then? How many countries invaded since then?

    Before events America never stood beside Islam when Muslims were being killed Globally but rather stood by their killers side....how about Israelies vs Palestinians...? Maybe that only made some Arabian and Islamic cheer the event with out true understanding but rather in their mind that the tyrant got hurt in his Ego rather than any thing else... But never they did know that the same country who calls for freedom and human rights for the good of all beings to become a beast who did all that is against he was calling for just because some group was using a population as a human shield?!

    Well killing a man with out being taken and heard at court before he is condemned to death, but such act could easily make of the man a martyr that was unjustly treated and killed with out the slightest human rights.
    Wonder what secrets he had or what was the truth he was holding back that has driven his relation with America to such disputes ??
     Must have been some thing that is not supposed to be heard otherwise why he was shut out and thrown out to sea...as a man that never existed...!?

    We as Muslims would have been happier to see him in court and to question him as why he had done all his crimes in the name of Islam? and whether he felt happy now that Islam is mistreated this way after his or followers acts...!? But seems the still waters run deeper than we thought...!

    Another thing that make me wonder is that why would a man who had inherited alone more than few Hundreds of Millions of U.S Dollars and shares in Multimillion family businesses....why would he leave all that back and go to live by the sword running hiding in the mountains chased by the world and to die waste in the end?? Would have understood if had nothing but with all that he had why chose this hard short life over riches ?? That is a secret I would want to know! 

    May 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Muneef

      Just wonder who have given him the authority to represent Islam and Muslims and to declare war against to west on it's behalf? Was it the same source that gave him the authority in the name of Islam to fight and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan?  

      May 5, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  12. jeff_000

    I understand the no trial concept completly... First, he admitted to being behind 9/11. so that basically established his guilt, as far as a trial goes, just because he admitted it, we have no real proof, so it would be hard to convict if he changed his tune... Also, him standing trial would just give more ammo to his followers, as long as he was in custody and being paraded around it would give them more reason to keep fighting and they might even try to free him, or take hostages and try to exchange them... This is all for the best, now we just need to let it go and move on...

    May 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  13. Lily

    I guess Allah got tired of his s***.

    May 5, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Osama wanted to talk to god. How nice of the Navy SEAL team to arrange the meeting.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  14. Muneef

    Well killing a man with out being heard or court cased before he is condemned to death,could make of the man a martyr that was unjustly killed... Wonder what truth he has with him that drove to that dispute?? Must have been big and strong otherwise why he had to be shut out and thrown out....as never existed...!?

    We would have been happier to see him in court to question him why he had done his crimes in the name of Islam and whether he felt happy now that Islam is treated this way after his acts...!? But seems the still waters run deeper than we thought...

    May 5, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  15. jeff_000

    It amazes me that there is anyone who is even foolish enough to suggest showing the death pics... We are dealing with Terrorists here... The last thing we need to do is Martyr Bin Laden... His Al Quada followers will use anything they can to try to get more followers... The longer his picture his out there being reported on the stronger his presence continues to be... Let it go and move on, he is dead and "WE" got him like we said we would... Showing pictures of it is like rubbing sand in a wound and when dealing with the terrorist mentality all it does is insite retaliation over time... EVERYONE, especially the media, needs to let it drop and move on... We are not dealing with rational people here and they will take anything we give them to use for recruiting, as long as we are writing stories and showing his pic it makes me wonder how powerful we though he really was... In my humble opinion that is perfect ammo to use to recruit more terrorists to the cause... So let it go move on, there are plenty more terrorists and we are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, lets focus on ending those now...

    May 5, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  16. philtration

    I believe that he is dead and I do not need a photo to prove but I want to see it anyway. Why?
    Because I watched as thousands of innocent people died on live television on 9/11 including many of my fellow citizens and if I have to have that memory burned into my head for the rest of my life then I want this image right beside it.

    May 5, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  17. JohnR

    Try, just try, to find something truly worth worrying about, Prothero. We'll remember Bin Laden for who he was, what he was and what he did, and not for which way his gaze was facing in some photos used in articles about his death. This is SO ridiculous ...

    May 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Well said.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  18. Gloria

    We did not need to see the birth certificate and we certainly don't need to see the photos. No good will come of it. Smarten up Americans. The President made the right call and selflessly so. Accept his decision. Let cool intelligent heads rule.

    May 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • pockets

      Unfortunately, there are less and less intelligent heads in the US, when you consider that the likes of mrs. todd palin can run for a public office with a lack of worldly views and in her case a lack of intelligence. Its a shame really that people like her get headlines for being what they are, and that is lacking common decency and common sense. Have you ever heard her say anything good about anyone or anything. She is POISON.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • eg


      May 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • ScottK

      "Smarten up Americans." Tough to do when the Repub's are trying to gut our education system and rewrite history. They know 2/3rds of their base is either uneducated or undereducated and they like it that way so the facts don't get in the way of their fictions.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  19. SadieSadie

    If the president doesn't cave someone will leak it for profit.
    I don't think we need a death glare from OBL to forever remember what he did. Just as we don't need a clip of the smoking towers or frantic people to remember 9/11.
    In fact this picture might be best because it shows that OBL wasn't some great guy, be was nothing more than a human being. It also reiterates (as does Ted Bundys picture) that evil isn't something you can necessarily see on the outside. Which.imo is an important lesson to learn.

    May 5, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  20. Nonimus

    Prof. Prothero,
    I'm guessing the President will eventually cave to public pressure to release the photos. I've already seen, mostly joking, comments such as, "show us the Death Certificate"
    Birthers don't die, they grow old and become Deathers.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • pockets

      I am totally convinced that "all" religion's are truly poison. It borders on insanity, and has taken the minds and lives of billions of us primates that inhabit this planet. Which by the way we are turning into a sewer.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Name*charles

      Pockets: before saying this, have you read any form of religious literature from front to back? In what kind of way have you educated yourself about ANY form of religion? Or do you make an assumption based on the actions of people? Many people falsely identify themselves as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. without making any effort to educate themselves on their faith at all. Chillax, and grab a beer.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • mark phillips

      Any coincidence that adolf hitler was killed 5/1/45 and bin laden is killed 5/1/11, 2 of the worst terrorists??

      May 5, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Duh

      Hitler wasn't killed; he committed suicide on 4/30/45. Aside from having all the details wrong, that was a great post.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • AlexBP

      Where's WIKILEAKS when you need them?

      May 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • ScottK

      @pockets – "It borders on insanity" Border on it? It crossed the border long ago and has set up anchor babies of insanity.

      @Name*charles – "have you read any form of religious literature from front to back?" Yes, the bible 3 times as well as the Torah and much of the Quran, and I still feel the same as pockets.

      "In what kind of way have you educated yourself about ANY form of religion?" 30 years of religious study's and an ordained minister for 15 years, still feel the same as pockets.

      "Or do you make an as sumption based on the actions of people?" No as sumptions, just watching fruits, good people bear good fruit, bad people bear rotten fruit, organized religion bears poisoned fruit.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:54 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.