Soon enough, official photographs of the dead Bin Laden will be released into cyber perpetuity. Phony documents have already shown up online. Given our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world,” as Sontag described it, not looking at the postmortem imagery will be nearly impossible. I wonder how they will be received, since no one believes photographs tell the absolute truth anymore. More likely, the burden of proof will fall to Bin Laden’s DNA tests.
In 2003, hours after the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a military ambush in Mosul, the American government released graphic photographs of the two brothers’ bloodied heads, paired with images of them taken while alive. Here, the world was told, is incontrovertible proof of their deaths. It wasn’t enough. Even Iraqi farmers paused in their fields and said, Wait, that’s not them, we need better evidence.
Skepticism about the photographs’ veracity grew to a collective scream for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Additional photographs followed in rapid-fire succession, but did not quench demand for proof. New photos showed the Hussein brothers wiped clean and shaved, with faces heavily reconstructed by plastic surgery. Ignoring the reality that current surgical techniques can make anyone look like someone else, it was accepted, finally, that Uday and Qusay were dead.
Early reverence for photography’s mystical ability to recreate the world has long since evaporated, revealing our increasingly relativistic approach to authenticity. Today, able to be altered digitally in ways not imaginable less than a decade ago, visual images are suspect messengers of truth and hence of memory. But absent a body, apparently buried at sea, photographs of Bin Laden, along with searing memories of all he destroyed, will remain with us for a very long time.