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May 06 2011

Incendiary image: Osama bin Laden's body

Obama's decision not to release the photograph of Bin Laden's body speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph

President Obama's decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden's corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.

Revealingly, Obama chose to frame his decision in both practical and moral terms. "It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool," he said. "You know, that's not who we are."

Others – most notably more hawkish Republicans and their supporters in the US media – argue that the images should be released precisely to show that this is "who we are": an America that wants the world to know in the most graphic terms what happens to those who attack their country. Photography, for better or worse, possesses this immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed forever.

History has shown that the intended message of such photographs can backfire. Back in 1967, when Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia by troops loyal to military General Barrientos (with the help of the CIA), his corpse was photographed to leave the world in no doubt of his identity. With his unkempt hair and beard, the dead Che resembled the dead Christ in a Renaissance painting. In his biography of the insurgent, Compañero, Jorge G Castañeda wrote: "The Christ-like image prevailed ... It's as if the dead Guevara looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering."

Could an image of Bin Laden's bloodied corpse send out the same message to his followers? Almost certainly, and we will no doubt see that power soon enough when the photographs leak out into the media, as they surely will – with or without Obama's sanctioning.

More problematic for Obama's moral reasoning is the fact that other graphic images of the aftermath of the attack on Bin Laden's compound have already been leaked, showing the bloodied corpses of unidentified men. Why is it acceptable to show these bodies but not that of their leader, a figurehead for global terrorism? Indeed, why show such graphic images at all?

In her recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, the American academic Susie Linfield argues that, in the internet age, we must regain our ability to distinguish between gratuitous images of violence and hardship – including "the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings and other forms of barbarism" – and more morally defensible images of war and conflict, however explicit.

"If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn't merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat," she writes. "We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be." One senses that Linfield would support Obama in his decision, especially at a time when many Americans are in no mood for painstaking and self-searching moral debates of this kind.

Interesting, too, is the group photograph of President Obama, Hilary Clinton and their retinue of advisers in the situation room watching Bin Laden die via a camera fixed to a soldier's helmet. It gives some indication of the horror of the moment, if only in Clinton's look of shock and disbelief as well as in the president's stern gaze. Why, though, was this image released? Perhaps because it shows no trace of celebration or gloating – "That's not who we are" – but instead a grim acknowledgment of the horror of what is happening in all its cruel radiance. It is a fascinating document, for what it doesn't show us as much as what it does. That is the often-overlooked power of great photography: to suggest rather than to shock.


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Osama bin Laden before Bin Laden | Jonathan Jones

At 14 he seemed so innocent. Yet these gentle, beatific looks are what made him so charismatic – and dangerous – in later life

Of all the known photographs of Osama bin Laden it is a happy, innocent, sociable picture of a group of teenagers, taken in Sweden in 1971, that has haunted news reports of his death this week. The 14-year-old Osama, smiling in a young, vulnerable way, stands second from right. The photograph in all its brittle colour glory is genuinely fascinating. In the green jumper stands Bin Laden before Bin Laden, a boy whose destiny you cannot conceivably read in his face. Next to the images in our imaginations of falling towers, of lower Manhattan swallowed in deathly dust, of flames in the sky eating away so many lives – the images of the new reality he made – it is eerily ordinary, perversely promising.

Perhaps it suggests the innocence of the world before 9/11, as well as the enigmatic life of Osama bin Laden himself. The pink Cadillac, the flares, the hair and a hat all place it unmistakably in the world of 1971. Who knows, perhaps this scene will soon be recreated in a darkly ironic biopic, for the Boogie Nights look is so flavoursome. I was five when it was taken. My generation was lucky enough to see the last years of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "golden age" of peace and prosperity for westerners after 1945. Better still, we saw the end of the cold war and a brief moment when a Democratic president and a New Labour government led a society whose main problem in the future looked like it might be choosing whether to lounge in Starbucks or visit an art gallery.

Any idea of a golden age, a bright new century, or the simple certainty that our democracies will survive was destroyed on that day in September 2001, by the insecurely smiling boy in the photograph.

But if this is the appeal of the image, it is illusory. The fascination of the picture relies on a contrast between the "ordinary" youth we seem to see here and the monster who was responsible for al-Qaida. Yet that would imply that later images of Bin Laden show him as a scary, deranged, inhuman terrorist. I have yet to see a photo that makes him look like that. Perhaps the CIA will find repulsive pictures of him doing bad things now that he is dead, but all the currently available photographs are of a man soft and almost feminine in his features, with gentle, even mystical, eyes. "The child is father of the man" – Wordsworth's lines apply. For there is no contrast between this photograph of the teenage Bin Laden and pictures of him as an adult. No sickness, no break in his life, no withdrawal from reality – he seems as natural in later portraits as he does here, with insecurity replaced by beatific calm.

It was a saint, not a devil, who killed so many. To his followers around the world "the Sheikh" was a guru, a sage, a man of wisdom. He called for megadeaths with the charisma of a benevolent visionary. Why else did doctors heed his call in Britain? This photograph in fact gives the lie to those who belittle Bin Laden's influence, or see him as some postmodern construct of western narratives of good and evil. For in its ordinariness it shows what made him extraordinary – out of this promising young man grew the illusion of moral authority that contradicted every stereotype of the terrorist as a pitiful, unattractive outsider. Osama bin Laden was the real thing, a leader, and that is why his death is such a necessary murder.


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May 04 2011

Why did Bin Laden build such a drab HQ?

The world's No 1 villain had a background in building. So why did he end his days in a lair with no flair?

If the death of Osama bin Laden tells us anything it's that life isn't like a Bond movie. Rather than running al-Qaida from some spectacular Ken Adam-designed lair under the ocean or inside a volcano, Bin Laden ended his days in an exceptionally ugly and ignoble townhouse – a bland, square, flat-roofed three-storey block with few windows or other features.

Blofeld or Scaramanga wouldn't have been caught dead in such a design abomination, while Bin Laden very much was. But does his style-free crib betray a wider architectural pathology? Is there a case that the world's most evil man was at heart a frustrated architect?

Let's consider the evidence. Osama's father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, was the founder of the powerful Saudi Binladin Group, builders to Saudi's royal family and Islam's holiest sites. Already there's a connection between architecture and religious zeal. Proving his worthiness to dad cannot have been easy for Osama, with 53 other brothers and sisters in contention, but he studied civil engineering in Jeddah evidently anticipating a place in the family business. For whatever reasons, that didn't work out. So did his failure in construction leave Bin Laden with an architectural chip on his shoulder? Did he turn his architectural ambitions to global terror instead? Is it coincidence that "al-Qaida" could be translated as "the base" or "foundation"? Could his horrendous crimes, particularly the destruction of the twin towers, be seen as a form of extreme architectural criticism?

Let's not forget that Bin Laden's own design experiments were regularly thwarted. First there were the famous Tora Bora caves in eastern Afghanistan. According to the press, these really were the stuff of Bond movies. A month after 9/11, the Independent published a sensational description of Tora Bora as an impregnable base built deep inside a mountain. The Times then printed an even more preposterous cross-section of "Bin Laden's underground fortress", equipped with its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms, hydroelectric power supply, and roads big enough to drive a tank into, apparently. The US did little to deny it. Presented with this fantasy design, Donald Rumsfeld stated, "there's not one of those, there are many of those". According to some reports, Bin Laden really did fit the caves with ventilation and hydroelectric power systems for Tora Bora, drawing on his civil engineering knowhow. He can't take full credit; the caves were primarily built during the 1980s by the mujahideen, using CIA money, but who knows what might have been had the US not bombed him out of there?

Most of Bin Laden's other homes were similarly destroyed by US air raids at some stage. He appears to have been flirting with dictator chic in his half-built house in Kandahar, which was said to include a mosque, 15 bedrooms, western bathtubs, carved wooden window frames and pastel-coloured conference rooms. Oddly enough, Turner prize-nominated British artists Langlands and Bell found another of his bombed-out Afghan residences in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2002, which they turned into a digital art piece.

If their virtual reconstruction is to be believed, it shows some progress in Bin Laden's design sensibility. This is light, spacious and sensitive to the surroundings. Note those considerately framed views, the relaxing veranda and sturdy bomb shelter. And the translucent foliage ceilings are a nice touch – very eco but traditional, too.

Fundamentalist terrorism's gain was the Ideal Home Show's loss.

In his final Pakistan abode, though, Bin Laden was cornered into the architecture of anonymity. Despite spending a million dollars on his bespoke compound, it had to be as inconspicuous as possible. Perhaps the frustrated fugitive still harboured some ambitions of grandeur, hence the ostentatious security wall, 18 feet high in places. And the fact that the house was roughly eight times larger than its neighbours – a mansion of mediocrity, and a bit of an own goal in the anonymity department. As a White House spokesman stated, "Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom-built to hide someone of significance." When it came down to it, Bin Laden just couldn't rein his architectural ambition in, and it proved to be his downfall.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


May 03 2011

Tech Weekly podcast: Looking for art, love ... and Bin Laden

Aleks Krotoski, Charles Arthur and Jemima Kiss are joined in the Tech Weekly studio this week by former Guardian Technology editor and artist Vic Keegan and Artfinder founder Chris Thorpe to discover what the web can do to help art lovers find inspiration.

Aleks speaks with Sam Yagan, chief executive & co-founder of the biggest free online dating site in the US, OKCupid, to learn a little about finding love online.

Plus, Charles breaks down the political implications of the live feed from Pakistan to the White House in Washington DC, during this week's US Military operation to kill al Qaeda's Osama Bin Laden, and fills the team in on the other technology headlines that have been making waves around the world.



The west goes wild as Obama and the Democrats ride again

With one cool shot, the US president brought down both Osama bin Laden and Republican claims to the mantle of western hero

Westerns have never been seen as Democrat movies. But this is based on a misunderstanding. The western genre of American film is generally thought of as morally crude, politically reactionary and so on, but in reality it was always more complex. From Fort Apache with its depiction of military folly to The Searchers, a dark tale of racism and otherness, the master of the western film, John Ford, always explored ambiguous themes and invested his films with deep intelligence.

Many other classic westerns portray characters who abhor violence – although they always use it in the end: Destry Rides Again and Shane both have heroes who are reluctant to take up arms. In these and other westerns it is only the bad guys who shoot for the sake of it and relish the wild side of the law. Yet somehow, in myth and political symbolism the bad guys are remembered as the good guys, the films of the wild west associated with the law of the gun. And it is Republican America, most successfully in the persona of Ronald Reagan and most dangerously in the would-be heroism of George W Bush, that has claimed the heritage of the mythic west.

This is why cool-talking, straight-shooting President Barack Obama has just changed history. He has overturned more than three decades in which the Democrats looked through the lens of the western like wimps from back east, and Republicans posed as tough sheriffs. Now there is a new sheriff in town and a new message: if you want years of bumbling, messy, murderous war, a Republican is best, but if you actually want a president who gets his man like a real US marshal of legend ... vote Democrat in 2012.

For a long time, Republicans have cast themselves as brave gunfighters. But President Obama actually measures up much more closely to those heroes of movie history. Shane and Destry were as measured and calm as he is, upholders of law who had no time for martial bluster. Being a true gunslinger hero in American myth does not mean making a lot of noise and it does not mean being a tinpot patriot. It means talking soft and when you go after the real bad guy, getting him right between the eyes.

Short of actually pulling the trigger himself, the president could scarcely have got more personal credit from the killing of this outlaw. It may seem trite to reduce it all to a western. But in the political imagination, where elections are won and lost, this is a game-changer. The bad guys have been chased out of town in more ways than one. A clear mind and eye outshot the blusterers. The myth of superior Republican patriotism is headed for Boot Hill – and Destry Rides Again.


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January 05 2010

Mona Lisa's health nothing to smile about

Medical inspection of Da Vinci's masterpiece reveals model's high cholesterol

The Mona Lisa may have an enigmatic smile. But she – or rather Leonardo's model – also had worryingly high levels of cholesterol. As for her triglycerides, well, they were simply off the dial.

The conclusions are those of an Italian academic who has been pioneering learning at the hitherto unsuspected point at which art history overlaps anatomical pathology. Studying Da Vinci's masterpiece with the eye of a medical scientist, Vito Franco of the University of Palermo noted a so-called xanthelasma – a subcutaneous accumulation of cholesterol – in the hollow of the Mona Lisa's left eye, and a tell-tale lipoma, a fatty tissue tumour, on one hand.

"The people depicted [in art] tell us about their vulnerable humanity, independently of the awareness of the artist", Franco told the Italian daily La Stampa.

Among his other findings are that two of the most iconic figures in Renaissance art had a rare condition that may also afflict Osama Bin Laden. One is the young man with a red cap and distinctly sardonic expression who is the subject of Botticelli's Portrait of a Youth, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The other is the sinuous and sinewy lady who modelled for Parmigianino in the 1530s when he painted his Madonna with Long Neck. The unfinished work, on which Parmigianino laboured for six years, is now in the Uffizi in Florence.

The subjects of both paintings have unnaturally long fingers and slender hands. Franco believes they had a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, named after the French paediatrician who first identified it in the 19th century. Al-Qaida's tall and bony founder is also suspected to suffer from Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissues.

Over the centuries, millions of words have been written about the enigmatic iconography of Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto: his rendering of a pregnant Mary. It has been argued that the tent in which she is standing is an allusion to the Ark of the Covenant and, five years ago, a Florentine author linked the painting to the suppression of the Knights Templar in the 14th century.

The contribution of what Franco calls "icono-diagnostics" is to point out that the swollen Madonna with one hand on her hip was probably a local peasant girl who would soon have looked a lot less attractive than the saintly mother-to-be in the painting. There are signs of an incipient goitre on her slender neck – typical of country-dwellers who contracted the ailment by drinking nothing but rain water.

The Spanish infanta, Margarita, in Velázquez's court masterpiece, Las Meninas, may also have been developing a goitre. But Franco puts that down to McCune-Albright syndrome, another genetic disorder associated with premature puberty.

In one celebrated painting, it is an artist who serves as both model and sufferer. Raphael's The School of Athens in the Vatican includes a depiction of a glum-looking Michelangelo in the left foreground. Well he might look dejected, said Franco.

His swollen knees "appear to indicate an excess of uric acid, typical of those afflicted by renal calculosis. There again, for months and months he had been living off nothing but bread and wine as he worked day and night on his masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel".

One of the most complete examples of the evolution of a medical condition traceable in art comes, not from the Renaissance of Spain's Golden Age, but from the 20th century.

The Dutch magical realist Dick Ket, who died in 1940 at the age of only 37, suffered from a congenital heart defect, thought to have been Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF).

An unusually high proportion of Ket's works – some 40 out of about 140 – were self-portraits, and they chronicle the evolution of the disorder. One, completed in the year before he died, shows him with the clubbing of the fingers that is typical of several heart and lung complaints.

"In a painting seven years before, his fingers are less deformed," said Professor Franco. "But it shows an abnormal swelling of the veins on his neck – a sign of the same syndrome, but in its initial phase."


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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