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. Muneef

    Don't attempt to acc-use all Muslims for few ones acts.
    You see now that this case is similar to the killing one of the Hamas leaders in Dxb by Israel.
    Should point out that by such acts teaches the masses and the few to change their strategy into a similar killings of individuals in similar ways ? 
    Should expect signs to show in the near future... But now if the MidEast countries do not settle down into peaceful living from their present troubles...sadly I expect that west will be facing many copiers  of the late, attacking all western interests in the west or abroad....

    May 6, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      "But now if the MidEast countries do not settle down into peaceful living from their present troubles..."

      Respectfully, you are talking about a area of the world that has so much problem with peace that God appeared in a burning bush, sent Noah, ... if you wish Mohammad , and his own son Jesus to try to get this area in peace. Until the fight for power and rule gets beat by the desire for coexistence then forget it.

      Sorry folks, on all sides, unless we learn nothing from Germany in the 30s and 40s and wish to re-start the gas chambers, ...co-existence and tolerance is the only way forward.

      May 6, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Reality

      The way forward:

      Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" will converge these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

      Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

      May 6, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  2. Keith

    Prothero would love to have one of himself kissing UBL's .....He'd probably have it put on to one of those atheist billboards. "You KNOW I'm a useful idiot".

    May 6, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  3. Reality

    "Which photo will bin Laden be remembered by?"

    The Twin Towers falling in flames and smoke with thousands of our citizens screaming in pain and agony!!!

    May 5, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  4. tallulah13

    I think the best thing to do is not remember Osama Bin Laden at all. Let us remember that there are fanatics out there who will kill without conscience, and let us watch for them, but let Osama bin Laden be unimportant and forgotten. I think that notion would horrify him.

    May 5, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  5. Amanda

    if this idiot has any shame left in her for her dumbness, she would keep her mouth shut but somehow, I dont think that will ever happen.

    May 5, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  6. trex

    I see fish food, baby

    May 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  7. lata

    believe he is dead and move on. why are we immortalizing obl by continuing such discussions?

    May 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      You could no more wish away the names of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or Mussolini. He is in that level now and he will be with us for a long long time.

      May 6, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  8. Jeremy Puttersfield

    Stephen Prothero, please cut way back on your anti-depressant consumption! Your articles are getting more insipid my the hour.

    May 5, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Rogue

      @Jeremy – Strange though it may sound, his writing is actually becoming easier to read. Maybe he is using one of his cute undergrads to write while he dictates? I don't really know.
      But I agree that they are not exactly thought-provoking. This article is more of a photojournalism critique than anything. And silly as usual.
      That must be why they keep him around. Vacuous articles that serve as a way of keeping up the tempo of article production or something.
      @Prothero – How are ye? I still love the trollface pic! 😛

      May 5, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Jeremy Puttersfield

      Oh my god you're RIGHT ! Prothero looks exactly like a garden gnome in that picture !

      May 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  9. Andulamb

    This is the problem with some artsy-fartsy types - they so easily turn personal interpretations into facts. Prothero sees a similarity between the bin Laden photo and a painting of Jesus, and because HE sees a similarity he declares: "But in both cases what we are witnessing is religious iconography reminiscent of Catholic images of the saints or Hindu images of the divine." You sure think a lot of yourself, don't you? Two pictures of a man looking to the side. Do you know how many photos and paintings there are in the world that show a person looking to the side? You basically picked an image at random, and have concluded that because YOU see a similarity (that isn't there, frankly), and because YOU choose to ignore all similarities to thousands of other images, that the interpretation YOU have pulled out of your rectum is the correct one. Wow. What an ego. It's a picture of bin Laden looking to the side, and it's really nothing like the Jesus painting. Oh, wait, both men have beards. Well, stop the presses. Hey, I know... Why don't you just ask these newspapers why they chose that picture? Or would that be too easy?

    May 5, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  10. b

    Anybody, and I mean ANYBODY, who would even think of viewing such images is a sick, twisted and depraved psycho.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  11. RBizzie

    I want to see the photo. I am not sick or morbid. Death is Death. It will happen to the best and worst of us. I was a soldier for 11 years, served in Iraq and have seen my fair share mangeled and blown up people. So the image and the state of the body is not an issue for me and I can only speak for myself. I think it should be shown because, again in my opinion Osama has already acheived a marytr like status in some areas of the world so showing his picture in my opinion will not change the threat level. We are still #1 on these extreme group's hit list and it did not take a photo of a dead terrorist for them to bomb the WTC in 1993 or in 2001 or the embassy's in Africa or the USS Cole. So I think the benefit of showing that this MAN was just that a MAN who frankly got what he deserved, and to serve as a message that this is the result of living a life dedicated to terrorizing others. The message thaat it would send in my opinion is far more powerful tan the one that is trying to be avoided.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  12. Robert

    Who cares? Why does it matter what photo he will be remembered by? He's dead. End of story. Let's move on with dealing with the important issues affecting the nation.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  13. Kayla

    I want to see the picture or the entire video to have proof that Bin Laden is really dead! I don't trust our government at all!!!

    May 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • zel

      so you'll trust a video or photo released by the government that you don't trust? riiiiiight. somehow i don't believe you. (or the others that insist on this too)

      May 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • trex

      What government do you trust?

      May 5, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  14. Brian

    How many more lies do we have to endure? First Osama Bin Laden dies in 2001 from disease, then terrorists are funded by the Pakistani ISI, NIST says the Twin Towers fell due to a 3D computer model in which they had to fudge the parameters to get them to fall due to Jet Fuel and still can't explain how Building 7 fell, the terrorists were trained at US Army bases, we end up joining OBL's Army the Muhajideen and rename them the "Northern Islamic Front" and commence to killing the Taliban, then we go into Iraq over more lies, then we pretend to assassinate the prime suspect in the 9/11 case and call it a Victory... complete hogwash... now CNN takes to name calling with the Birthers, Deathers, Truthers, and anyone who asks Questioners

    May 5, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • lagtat

      Could you be any more of a paranoid psychopathic moron?

      May 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • D generic

      Noone cause about the truth until they are impacted directly by a lie, ..

      May 5, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Andulamb

      It's amazing how basement dwellers like this are able to see through the deceit of the world's most brilliant people, despite having access to no evidence or investigative resources.

      May 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Gemini

      I I concur. How many times can they cry "wolf" and expect to be believed? Since JFK's death there has been no truth in this political coup of a government.

      May 6, 2011 at 5:36 am |
  15. jakob nunes

    it makes me fill safer but nothing i would wish for

    May 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Dyslexic Atheist

      LOL. Good one. Makes me FEEL safer. Fill safer. Hahahahaha

      May 6, 2011 at 2:28 am |
  16. AJ

    We should create a morphed image combining Osama's face with a photo of butt cheeks. Then all the media should agree to use only that picture anytime they print his pic.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  17. Johnn

    Better to have a bloody ugly picture, then that of a handsome dude with an AK47.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  18. Johnn

    There is no real picture of Jesus Christ out there. No body, nothing. Look what happened there.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  19. The Truth

    A religous scholar?...kinda like an expert on bigfoot and the loch ness monster...LOL....what a joke!!

    May 5, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • alanjay1

      I guess the joke is on you, since you're reading the blog. Some of the smartest people in the world are religious. But I guess they're all idiots to you

      May 5, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • Dyslexic Atheist

      Yeah, just about as funny as that arrogant pompous fool who calls itself The Truth.

      May 6, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  20. McCain-in-4

    Whether right or wrong, its the President's call and his alone to make and his legacy that will bear the brunt of his Executive decision. If you must see a picture, wait 50 or so years and visit the Barack Obama Presidental Library in Hawaii. If Former President Bush was a little more diligent, you could have purchased a souvenir copy in the George Bush Presidential Library gift shoppe.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Tired old aged middle class American

      I don't have 50 years left

      May 6, 2011 at 1:37 am |
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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.