January 2, 2007

Pretty Flowers



It’s fascinating just how much the gritty, lynch party cameraphone version of Saddam’s death alters the original perception of his demise.

You’ve probably seen both versions by now, the silent, steady, super-tight focused, pre-drop version recorded by television cameras, and the swervy cameraphone footage, shot from the bottom of the dungeon stairs, documenting the taunting and the quarreling right up to and even through Saddam’s last moment.  (The NYT Screens blog has a good summary of the cameraphone version.)

I think it’s noteworthy to consider just how “clean” the first version was now that the second take has infused so much more reality into the event.  Taking “sanitization” to an extreme level, however, take a look at the shot above, which accompanied the original NYT account of the story.  (Caption: An Iraqi family watched television at home in Basra on Saturday, while a video was shown of Saddam Hussein being led to the gallows.)

If abuse comes in all forms, this photo is cognitively abusive in the way it diminishes and desensitizes, reducing the original (what we now know as already heavily sanitized) transcription to a frame within a frame, which is further washed out by a larger, brighter and sharper set of contrasting domestic elements.

Looking at an image like this, it’s easy (here in the West) to have it both ways.  On one hand, we can be dismayed that such an event might pass for family fare, framed with smiles and sunflowers.  On the other hand, this picture is as much voyeuristic, old west-style entertainment, with the media acting as our enabler (tossing in the baby, the smiling child, the bright colors, and the sunflowers) so we don’t have to feel any self-consciousness in the matter while the men in the funny hats take care of their (initially) soundless business.

(image 2: liveleak.com via nyt.com. image 2: Nabil al-Jurani/A.P. December 31, 2006.  nyt.com)

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Michael Shaw
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