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The afterlife of Osama bin Laden: performative pictures in the “war on terror”


Critical Studies on TerrorismJournal abstract

In his interview with CBS News on 4 May 2011, US President Barack Obama acknowledged the power of images when he explained that his government would not release a photo of the dead Osama bin Laden due to moral considerations and security-related issues. How is it possible that a photo is perceived as too horrific to be published and as a powerful threat to national security? In this article, I argue that the concept of performativity helps to acknowledge the iconic power of an image as well as its discursive contextualisation. Yet, the meaning of a picture is not only discursively constituted but made possible by a performative act of showing/seeing. Empirically, I focus on pictures that refer to the killing of Osama bin Laden, based on a critical reading of three defining and prominent images in the US public discourse (that circulated worldwide): the Situation Room photo by Pete Souza, a photo-shopped image purporting to show the terrorist’s dead body and the iconic X-ing out of bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine. This reading looks at three dimensions of performative pictures: (1) their success and failure, (2) their self-reflexivity and sociability and (3) their performativity.

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