Osama Bin Laden raid: Do pictures provide truth?
Pictures provide proof, or so the story goes. From the moment it was announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan it was clear that there would be widespread calls for a picture of his body to "prove" the fact.
The seemingly hurried burial at sea and conflicting stories of the mission did little to quell the conspiracy theorists and many called for the picture to be released and news agencies scrabbled to source one.
At the other end of events the White House released the much debated picture of President Obama and his advisors watching events unfold (above) thousands of miles away. This picture seemingly shows the tension in the room, each face, perhaps Hillary Clinton's being the most obvious example, seems to be offering us a way into their thoughts.
But what are they watching? The moment Bin Laden is killed? It seems not, as it's been reported there was no live feed from inside the compound and the caption clearly states they are receiving "an update on the mission".
It's a photograph of a tense moment, yet more than that it includes the big names of the US government all focused on the moment. Some will say it's a moment of record, others no more than propaganda. Yet all photographs are propaganda of sorts for they do not tell us what was happening just out of the frame, a split second before or after it was taken. Can a photograph really carry the burden of truth?
Returning to the photographs of Bin Laden's body there was the instant hit of fake pictures on the web, one of which was picked up by many news outlets as the real deal. You can read Reuters take on this on their blog (Warning: Contains a graphic image).
From this I was asked how we verify pictures and I started to type out the answer which explained how we go about this by checking the metadata in the digital file, matching dates, running it through Photoshop and looking at the varying sources of light, the tones, pixel types, density and so on. Then there's the cross referencing of other data around the event. Does it match what we know, what our reporters on the ground tell us and so on.
But this got me thinking about whether we need to see the photograph, would the words and description of the event not suffice? For in the end it all comes down to trust. Do we trust the source of the information and on a wider level those who send us photographs, or the photographers who take them? What can the photograph add? Can it prove a fact? Those who believe will, and those who doubt will continue to do so. Don't forget, more than 40 years on some believe the moon landings were a fake.
In this case President Obama announced he would not be releasing the photos, saying the "very graphic images" could incite violence and become propaganda tools.
But I doubt this will be the end of the story.