Deconstructing the Situation Room Photograph

Widely referred to as ‘The Situation Room Photograph’, the image of Barack Obama and his most trusted advisors as they watch the events unfold in Pakistan is rapidly becoming the most viewed photograph on Flickr. The photograph is based on a simple, yet a very powerful dynamic characterized by an exchange of gazes: the viewer looks at the photograph, while the subjects in the photograph look at the ‘situation’ in Pakistan. Tapping into the viewer’s imagination, part of the allure of the photograph thus hinges on, not necessarily in what it depicts, but what it does not depict.

A number of important details in the image clearly stand out. Barack Obama’s leans forward in such a way that his body appears crouched, almost humbled by what he is looking at. In stark contrast to the strength and power projected by a ‘Commander in Chief’, Obama’s figure appears far smaller than most of those around him. His dark jacket has the effect that his upper body appears even slimmer. This sense of scale is photographically and optically further emphasized by the his body falling out of focus. The camera did not focus on him. Most importantly however, in the photograph Obama is surrounded by a large empty space above and behind him. Despite sitting in a small room packed with people, Obama appears alienated, withdrawn even marginalized. This reading is not necessarily counter productive to Obama’s interests. The empty space above Obama in fact emphasis an important assumption: even though he is surrounded by advisors, the final decision rests alone with him. In a sense, Obama’s crouched body signifies humility in recognition of the historical impact of his decision. Here, I am not only referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but also, all the legal, ethical and moral ramifications that come with it.

Obama is flanked by Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb, Assistant Commanding General of Joint Special Operations. Webb holds, in the true sense of the word, an exceptional position in the photograph: he is the only person whose full military uniform is visible, he is sitting at the top end of the table further underlining his elevated position within the room, but most importantly, he is, unlike everyone else, not looking at the screen but at a laptop in front of him. He appears to be typing on the keyboard evoking the impression that, to an extent, he is controlling the very events that the others are looking at on the screen.

While Webb’s facial expression appears controlled and emotionless, Hilary Clinton’s expression, on the other hand, displays a far more emotional response to the events unfolding. As she covers her mouth with her hand, Clinton’s hand and face signifies tension, shock, maybe even fear. Following the rule of thirds, the composition of the photograph in fact hinges on Clinton’s gesture and facial expression. A close reading of the photograph thus also points to an overdetermined and problematic gender stereotype: in a room full of men (apart from Audrey Tomason in the very back), Clinton, as woman, shows the strongest emotions. Fully aware of a patriarchal order which holds no place for emotions in politics, Clinton meanwhile quickly denied that her facial expression had anything to do with what she was looking at on the screen as she later said: “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So it may have no great meaning whatsoever”. Clinton’s statement suggests that in a male-dominated order, emotional responses are far less associated with compassion, care or concern, then they are with lack of will or weakness. It explains why Clinton swiftly sought to distance herself from any emotions, blaming the hands over her mouth on ‘allergic coughs’.

As a sign how quickly the photograph has gained an iconic status in visual culture, a whole number of situation room spoofs have emerged from the internet. At the forefront of a wave of creativity (and mockery) have been users of the rapidly growing micro-blogging website Tumblr. The instantaneity of ‘tumbleblogging’ has the effect that spoof images are distributed at a vast speed with a global reach. There is for example a situation room spoof photograph which shows everyone with Princess Beatrice’s ridiculous hat she wore for Kate and WIlliams wedding only a few days before Osama bin Laden was killed. In an apparent reference to Aphex Twin’s classic music video for Windowlicker, another spoof shows Barack Obama’s face superimposed on everyone else in the room.

Another spoof photograph displays an uncanny similarity with Sir Peter Blake’s cover art for The Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper. It is perhaps Brigadier General Webb’s uniform that triggered an association with the exaggerated and clicheed depiction of Sergeant Pepper in Blake’s version. The numerous spoofs emerging from the internet however point to a more serious dynamic emerging from the killing of Osama bin Laden. The White House has so far resisted releasing photographs or visual ‘evidence’ of Osama bin Laden’s death. In search for a visual representation of one of the biggest news stories of the year, the press therefore had to refer to the ‘Situation Room Photographs’ as a matter of course. Yet the lack of a visual representation of Osama bin Laden is also the ideological breathing ground for conspiracy theories. I would suggest that the spurt of creativity in response to ‘The Situation Room Photograph’ hinges precisely on the very lack of visual information on Osama bin Laden’s death. As the viewer of ‘The Situation Room Photograph’ reverts to imagining what those in the room are looking at, a small army of tumblebloggers rely on their imagination in creating spoofs which fill the visual vacuum left by the unrepresentability of Osama bin Laden’s death.

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4 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Situation Room Photograph

  1. Hey Marco,

    You know, it’s a cool photo because of so much of the pleasure is derived from the viewer being given a space to speculate on what they are thinking. It’s, I think, a kind of part of what makes certain photographs so iconic, or at least publicly appealing, is they tap into a various layers of values that, regardless whether they are true or not, are palatable or easy to digest. The photo itself is not interesting without the context, or title.

    Furthermore, the fact that the interpretation of her statement as a sign that Clinton would refrain from showing herself to be emotional because such feminine response is weak might say more about the person doing the interpretation than anything else. She, herself, might have been surprised to have been caught in that split second, with that pose. Or that the photographer understood that was what the public wanted to see from a woman.

    Finally, Obama seems to the only one undressed for the occasion. While everyone else looks dressed for work, he looks like he just came in from a golf game. And, his position at the table looks like they just found him a spare chair after everyone had taken their place. He just looks like he’s late to the table.

    And those are my thoughts. Your posts on the Hondros’ photos are also very thought provoking but I will sleep before I comment on them.

    Thanks for writing all this stuff.

    p.s. – you have a slight bug on your comments box. It seems to join words, even with a space bar, around the wraparound.

  2. I imagine this photograph will bring out as many different deconstructions as there are viewers. For me, my eye immediately goes to Obama. He appears to be the only one that has a stake in what’s going on, while the others appear to be interested observers. His intensity seems to leap from the photograph, both by his stare and crouching stance, and also by his visual isolation from the others. Of course we know that he’s the one in charge, and I think if we didn’t that we’d interpret the photograph much differently.

  3. Great stuff! I really enjoy your articles as they always remind me of how images can be encountered in so many different ways. Thx!!

  4. Great commentary. I’m going to respond on my blog, too. Have you seen the cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye on 13 May 2011 – another spoof of the same image – this time imagining that they’re all watching the results of the recent UK local government elections.

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