Blog Post

Breaking out of the Situation Room

Situation Room Almost two weeks ago, U.S. President Obama announced that U.S. military forces had raided Osama bin Laden's compound and killed him.  Americans danced in the streets, others fretted about what was to come, and the world, it might be safe to say, was stunned. Soon after Obamas announcement came the calls for photos to be released.  The U.S. hedged, arguing that releasing photos of bin Laden in death would unnecessarily provoke already angry bin Laden sympathizers.

That didn't stop news organizations from doing what they could to illustrate the situation for readers.

Perhaps the most interesting visualization of the night came from Stern news magazine in Germany. The front page of their website on 4 May, 2011, was dedicated to the President's Situation Room on the night bin Laden was killed. The photo, from the White House Flickr stream, was mostly unremarkable.  The subjects and objects in the room were standard issue: laptops, take out bags (oddly called a burn bag by Stern), military and Cabinet officials.  But the way in which a Stern viewer examines the photo is far from ordinary.

Labeled an interactive photo, Stern has made it possible for viewers to zoom in on any part of the photo. They can click and drag the frame to analyze more closely body language and facial expressions. One can even get close enough to see the text on the official White House disposable coffee cup. Viewers can see the worry on Obamas face, the anxiousness on Hillary Clinton's face, the --  what exactly is Joe Biden doing?

In short, viewers are able to disrupt the photo, to see for themselves, to find the story behind the story. They can look the Americans in the eye, as the barrier between viewers and producer is made more porous. Although the photo comes from an official U.S. government source and has been edited so classified information is hidden or distorted within the photo, Stern use of the picture looks as if it is exposing (cracks in?) the current Administration. 

The Americans and, in particular, President Obama become part of an Anthropological gaze, a little American village by which eager viewers can observe American leaders in their natural habit.  In allowing viewers to travel within the photo, in what way might German journalists have attempted to undermine the authority that restricted the release of photos relating to bin Laden's death, to images such as this highly sanitized group photo?  

[Note: Above is the official White House photo. You can access the archived version of Stern's treatment of the photo here.]

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