Cracks in the fabric of vision.
Visual politics of abscence.

– By Katja Müller-Helle
This essay was published in the publication Talents #29 - This is Willem Popelier, C/O Berlin, September 2012.


The US journalist Walter Lippmann began his paper Public Opinion from 1922 with the story of an island. In 1914, under the title The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads, he has a delegation of English, French and German citizens miss the beginning of the First World War. The deep-sea cables, installed more and more frequently in the second half of the 19th century for news transmission lead around the island far from the coastline and the mailboat only comes every 60 days. The news is something that is always subject to delay. It is not until the middle of September, six weeks late, that the inhabitants of the island discover that the United Kingdom, France and Germany are at war. “For six strange weeks they had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies.”1 The picture in the mind and the world affairs cease to be congruent; the news about the war freezes the common activities of the island dwellers in a masquerade clothed in reality. Lippmann’s introductory narration devises an asychronic scenario between the events of war and the personal experience of each individual. “There was a time for each man when the picture of Europe on which men were conducting their business as usual, did not in any way correspond to the Europe which was about to make a jumble of their lives.”2 The pointe of the author’s structural analysis of public opinion following the First World War however does not end with the assumption that there are fast and slow means of transferring information, undergoing a historic transformation. The surprising aspect of the statements made by Lippmann, who in 1918 worked as advisor to US president Woodrow Wilson on the 14-point programme, showing a way for Europe to live together in peace, is his transference of the island model to the structure used for the communication of news in general. The personage of Public Opinion is constitutively excluded from the flow of information and the result of this exclusion is a story of mistaken identity.

“Looking back we can see how implicitly we know the environment in which we nevertheless live. We can see that the news of it sometimes reaches us fast, sometimes slowly; but whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”3 Lippmann’s island is not only a ‘far-off place’ but also a symbolic operation. “An island situated far from the mainland serves to differentiate, to draw a line.”4 This line runs between the transmission of information and non-installed cables, between seeing and not seeing, knowledge and non-knowledge. While for Lippmann it was precisely the asynchrony between the events and the information technology that have a determining effect on the huge gaps in knowledge about world affairs, in the following text it is the simultaneity of the uniform information, which will be analyzed as a media tactic.


On 3 May 2011 Willem Popelier drove to the airport. On this particular day he was not interested in a distant travel destination but in the international newspapers. During the night before the 2 May a US military task force shot Osama bin Laden on his estate in Pakistan. A surprising image loomed up out of the stack of newspapers. For a decade, the vacant space left by the terrorist on the run, who has been highly stylised by the media, has become a motif used by international politics. Willem Popelier was curious to see how the event of Osama bin Laden’s death would be visually portrayed in the media. He bought as many international newspapers as possible and was surprised by the front pages. There were no shots of the corpse as evidence or as a trophy, no traces of the forceful conviction of the world’s most sought-after man. Instead, the artist was met only by the portrait of Bin Laden’s intact countenance again and again. Osama’s portrait obscures the events, the face conceals his death.

In Popelier’s work Osama Papers, a grey wall is littered with the cover pages from 3 May. In the synopsis, the world event shrinks to form a multitude of identical visual motifs. Newspaper pages that have been reproduced and mounted behind glass frame similar portraits of Bin Laden with different headlines. The Daily Mail printed in bold letters: “OBAMA WATCHED BIN LADEN DIE ON LIVE VIDEO”, the Algemeen Dagblad commented matter-of-factly “BINLADENDOOD” while the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was already thinking a step ahead: “FEAR OF REVENGE FOR BIN LADEN”. The living face of Bin Laden remains. The portrait is used as a shield for the US security policy, which presumes that the public will engage with the interplay of images and events. The official reason given by Barack Obama for the retention of the pictures of the deceased Bin Laden is the protection of the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The art critic David Levi Strauss showed that the visual politics of the US government with its strategy of concealing pictures was employed consistently with regard to Abu Ghraib. On 13 May 2009, Obama declared that “he would veto the release of further pictures of abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib and as a result revoke the agreement previously made between the government and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)”.5 The justification follows the same logic as the headline in the Zürcher Zeitung after Bin Laden’s death, which focuses on the fear of revenge.

“Yes, the direct consequence of publishing them, I think”, said Obama, “would be to whip up anti-American sentiments and put our troops in even greater danger.”6 The photographic display of post-mortem pictures of corpses can indeed—and this has been demonstrated by history—fall very short of the desired effect. The presentation of the corpse of Che Guevara, who had been executed in 1967 by the Bolivian army with the help of the US intelligence service, the CIA, not only generated admiration for the gesture of sovereignty on the part of the protagonists but also evoked sympathy for the slain revolutionary (fig. 1). The same applied to the photographs of the killed sons of Saddam Hussein, Udai and Qusai, those taken in the US military morgue at Baghdad airport on 25 July 2003, as well as the pictures of the official execution of Saddam Hussein. They not only served as a deterrent but also provoked shows of sympathy among supporters (fig. 2). In order to prevent a martyr cult developing, the US government decided not to publish any pictures of Osama’s corpse at all. They filled this vacant space with his intact portrait and the media mechanism of the newspapers was set in motion: it produced an endless number of the same old pictures, which were fed into the media loop by Obama’s press office. This portrait on the other hand is based on the desire for pictures that provide evidence of his death. From 2 May 2011 onwards fake corpse pictures have circulated more intensively on the Internet that show Osama’s face mutilated and drained of blood, in order to provide an image of the phantom (fig. 3).7 The art theorist Tom Holert has proposed, with reference to Judith Butler, that we perceive the visual politics of war as framings. “Frames are selective, they suppress, make something unreal, dehumanise and de-legitimise what is not supposed to be in the ‘picture’. However, by means of this suppression and removal, a huge volume of suppressed, excluded pictures that would interfere with the official representation form a potential of resistance.”8 Inherent in the visual manipulations of the Osama portraits is a resistance to the vacant space of the absent corpse.

The theme of the Osama Papers is not the frequently bemoaned flood of media images but the reduction of the spectrum of images to a few single ones and in the case of Osama bin Laden the concentration on the portrait. The theme here is the constant repetition of the same, limited visual motifs—in silent mutual agreement, the world is shown what is not revealed to them. In the aforementioned book, Walter Lippmann described this characteristic of the press as a “manufacture of consent”. This signifies that as a result of the concordant news coverage, the news becomes more credible: “Everyone is saying it so it must be true.”9 The paradox setting of the news reporting, which is however shown by Popelier’s work, is an agreement on the absence of images. Within the panorama of the newspaper announcements, everyone has agreed on maintaining a particular silence; the knowledge of what happened remains trapped in the iterative loop of portraits. Substitution rather than publication. “For a short time, the most sought-after terrorist once again became one of the most-published faces of the early twenty-first century”, said the cultural scientist Felix Hoffmann, pointedly summing up the Bin Laden effect.10 The reduced number of variations of his face became a cover-up for the event, which was to remain visually hidden from the public. The Osama Papers follow a similar strategy to that of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s synopsis of cover pages in 9/12 Front Page from 2002 (fig. 4). Feldmann collected the 151 title pages of newspapers the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. The newspaper pages were digitally reprinted and reproduced against a background of white card, while the unframed reproductions can be hung anywhere in the exhibition space.11 Although the media arrangements of 9/11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden are diametrically opposed—on 11 September 2001 the historical event took place live in front of the television audience, while the killing of Osama bin Laden was not pictured—there is a structural similarity in the use of photographs by the media following the events: the restriction of the visual material. In his essay Diplopie. Bildpolitik des 11. Septembers / Diplopia. The visual politics of 11 September, Clémént Chéroux described this phenomenon as follows: “In the hours immediately following the attacks, the New York office of the Associated Press sent several hundred images out to the 1,500 associated American daily papers as well as the 15,000 subscribers in 112 countries.” Furthermore he ascertains that “86%—in other words five sixths—of the portrayals of the attacks [...] from 11 and 12 September used only six types of image, divided among 30 different pictures.”12 The consensus on the dissemination of information on the part of the image editorial teams leads to a repetition of the same old thing. This repetitionis duplicated many times on computer screens, television screens, mobile phones or in print media. While in the case of 9/11, the total visibility was supposed to set a sign, make a mark, the demise of the person responsible takes place invisibly. In the shadow of his face.


The portrait of Osama bin Laden is a reference to the absence of images that would make his death conclusive. At the same time, a second portrait was shown alongside this image: the image of Barack Obama as his victorious antagonist. Two faces, formatted to a double portrait by the newspaper pages. In his long-term work Your Weekly Address Willem Popelier exhibits the portrait of Obama as a constantly recurring confirmation of the US value system. Obama’s countenance shows the culmination of the American dream, which was threatened by the attacks 9/11, a threat that is to be banished by a precise procedure of communicating the face through the media. Since Barack Obama has been President of the Unites States, he has held a speech for the US Public on the Internet every Saturday with the title Your Weekly Address. Popelier has collected all the “weekly addresses” since 15 November 2008 and has selected a film still from each short film. The films have been modified so that Obama’s face is the same size in each of them. In a precise process, two hands put the film stills on top of each other in a regular rhythm. The camera perspective, fixated inflexibly from above records the pile of photographs growing larger and larger; while individual details such as the colour of the suit, the position of the hands or the entire interior change, Obama’s face remains rigidly turned towards the viewer. With each new image, the face is presented in a slightly different setting, which during the course of the film freezes more and more into a two-dimensional mask. The stack of images piles up, the visibility of each new picture is coupled with the concealment of the one that went before; in spite of this, a monotony of representation is created, which is linked to the gravity centre of Obama’s face. Even though the images accumulate, one is never able to go further than the surface. “Since it is a movie on a flat surface, even if it is a huge stack of paper, it doesn’t grow, it won’t get you any further than just the surface.”13 In the top left hand corner, the date changes with each picture, reminding the viewer of the continuous ticking of time. The audio track of the film projected onto a surface from above has been omitted; in the “weekly addresses” broadcast on the Internet, Obama’s voice tells of the successes of the past week, the fight against terrorism and the ideal of living together in a democracy. In the Osama Papers and in Your Weekly Address Osama and Obama are vis-à-vis like two related sides of the same media principle.

The relationship established between these two political faces and the public is summed up succinctly in another visual-political volte of the US government: the photograph by the press photographer Pete Souza showing the “Situation Room” (fig. 5). This image was not only used as cover-up for the absent picture of the dead Bin Laden and published as the official press photo of the White House but it also contains a gaze that makes the structure of the political image campaign very evident. The reader of the newspaper sits at the table with the military and political leaders of the US in the very moment when the execution of Bin Laden is carried out. We do not see the events themselves but we see Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the officer-in-command General Marshall B. Webb and other advisors watching a live transmission with great concentration, shortly before it is clear what the outcome of the risky manoeuvre will be. We do not see anything yet at the same time we see those responsible, for who the events are apparently fully visible. The viewers of this picture are supposed to read the facial expressions until they themselves as viewers comprehend and realise that the crux of this picture is the omission of other pictures. This press photo shows very clearly the visual-political control over the gaze, which does not make the showing of pictures common practice but rather the concealment of them. The Chilean artist Afredo Jaar did not believe this photo: “I don’t believe [...]”.14 At a symposium in the Haus der Kunst in Munich, he took it as an opportunity to counter the iconographic classification of the art-historical speakers before him with his scepticism. Jaar showed his work May 1 2011: two monitors and next to them two prints. The monitor on the right shows the “Situation Room” and next to it a pictorial key to the persons in the picture and a list of names, published by the White House. Jaar counteracts this strategy of seeming transparency with two white surfaces that take up the image format on the right side and allow it to subside into invisibility or at least seek to find the visible. “This is a case, where we are being asked to believe without seeing.”15 Jaar’s image research shows that the picture of the “Situation Room” was the first that the White House put on its flickr page as a free download following the killing of Bin Laden. It was not until one or two days later that nine other pictures of the same setting were published on the page. Yet what is it about this picture that Jaar does not believe? That it is an authentic portrayal of a global-political relevant moment? It presents itself as a meta-image, as a commentary on the visual staging of the situation between the protagonists and the public.

Willem Popelier searched the surface of the image of the “Situation Room” for openings that could provide a key to this visual strategy. In his work Obscured Classified Document Popelier isolates the pixelated photo on the laptop in front of Clinton and presents it in the same format as a standard letter in the US. The selected detail of the photo becomes an abstract composition. The pattern of yellow, brown and white rectangles gives no indication of the encoded information even if it is contained in the image. When this blind spot is extracted from the picture, the detail is removed from its context and represents a commentary on the previously described composition. It becomes a secret key to the gazes. Obama observes Osama, the viewers observe this observation and this observation is structured by a chiastic relationship between transparency and opacity. The viewers observe something and yet cannot see it. As in the manipulation of the Osama portraits, this exclusion resulted in a lively approach to images on the Internet, which could be described as a re-appropriation strategy through caricature. The personages of fictive and real figures from US history, culture and politics join those present in the “Situation Room” (fig. 6). In the foregrounds, Micky Mouse stands on a laptop, John Lennon casually leans back in an armchair and Bob Ross, the inventor of the long run of series for television, the painting course The Joy of Painting, who is otherwise famous for his sophisticated palette knife techniques in his landscapes, sits in the foreground with a broad paintbrush, looks at the viewer challengingly and begins to paint the entire scenery behind him. The picture presents itself as something that has been made.


Walter Lippmann proclaimed that a structural exclusion of the public generated the formation of public opinion with regard to the published knowledge of information. In the visual politics following 9/11, this exclusion refers to the distribution practices of the US government and its entanglement with the image editing team of the international newspapers. More difficult to comprehend than the power-political side of the distributed pictures however, is the question of what these photographic images actually show. Despite the transparency of their non-transparency, these images hold the promise of having been connected to the real events at one point in time. It is only against the background of this expectancy that the presentation of Osama bin Laden’s portrait can be perceived as an anachronistic manoeuvre. The portrait shows Bin Laden, however not in the moment specified by the headlines. The temporal levels of image and text are divergent, while the conclusiveness of the photographic image is omitted in order to evade its power. Contrary to all the knowledge about image manipulation and the media transformation of the pictures, the promise of the reality effect offered by photography seems to hold its ground in a particularly resistant way.

With regard to the photographic portrait, this is based on the question of what is transferred from a person to a photograph. What are we actually looking at in a photograph? Willem Popelier has not only explored this question in media political portraits but also in the private photographs of individuals. The reflection on the nature of official portraits was preceded by works about the photographic act of capturing something in the standardised passport photo format and about the artist’s own family history. Willem Popelier’s personal works are based on the assumption that in the photographic biographies it is not about destinies that only apply to each individual but about ones in which an approach to identity in general becomes visible. The private photographs of two twin brothers in high chairs (This is me & This is me), the variations of 39 passport photographs, taken according to the regulations set by the Dutch authorities (Rejected Identities), the journey through Florida (Visual Proof of my Existence)—which is not documented with the artist’s own camera but with official surveillance cameras, the cameras of other tourists or action shots in Walt Disney World—question the limitations of self-reproduction in the form of an image.

In his work Rejected Identities Popelier explores the limitations of what is ascertainable in identity-based photography. In 39 official photo studios, Willem Popelier had passport photos taken of himself in accordance with the 39 criteria specified by the Dutch government for official passport photos. The dispositive of the focused photographic image, the standardised passport photo format, the stringent composition of the image and the archiving of the master image draw on standards of criminological practice from the second half of the 19th century.16 The typical image of the criminal, which Alphonse Bertillon, founder of the anthropometric measuring method and since the 1880s head of the police records department in Paris had systemised using index cards, serves as an iconographic point of reference. The standardisation of the setting for the photo and at the same time the intensification of the identification of outstanding— in other words in Bertillon’s system individual—characteristics were intended to produce generally accessible evidence of an identity. As analysed by Allan Sekula in his essay The Body and the Archive from 1986, Alphonse Bertillon attempted “to outwit the skill of the professional criminal in disguising him or herself, taking on false and multifaceted biographies and inventing alibis”.17 To do so, Alphonse Bertillon used photography within his anthropometric system for the standardisation of physiognomies of offenders. The supra-individual passport photo format specified by the authorities today also draws on this criminological practice from the 19th century. Popelier questions this criminological image system by constantly undermining the criteria of the state specifications during the photo sessions. The result: 20 of the 39 photographs have been rejected by the authorities. The crux of this artistic production lies in the tension between the self-image and the perception by others. Willem Popelier disassociates himself from his own self-image. So what are we actually looking at in a photographic portrait? The promise of the reality effect produced by photography is maintained just as much in the serial production of the photos as the absence of the “actual” person in the photographic image. As the viewers of photography we become island-dwellers, who are constantly exposed to the transposition of reality and image and their mutual formation.

© Katja Müller-Helle

– Katja Müller-Helle born 1978, lives in Berlin. Studied art history in Bonn, London (UCL) and Berlin. From 2007 to 2010 she completed a PhD fellowship in the doctoral programme “Senses—Technology—Mise-en-Scène” at the University of Vienna and since November 2010 she has been a graduate research assistant at the Freie Universität Berlin. In her analysis of the history and theory of photography, she focuses on the dissipation of photography and the diversity of the stories told.

1 Lippmann 1922, p. 3. 2 Lippmann 1922, p. 4. 3 Lippmann 1922, S. 4. 4 Meynen 2010, p. 82. 5 Strauss 2012, p. 62. 6 Zeleny und Shanker 2009, quoted by Strauss 2012, p. 62. 7 On the phantom-like character of media images after 9/11 cf. Hoffmann 2011, pp. 12–27. 8 Holert 2012, p. 34. 9 Weibel 2012, p. 92. 10 Hoffmann 2011, p. 24. 11 Cf. Patrizia Dander and Julienne Lorz 2012, p. 112–115. 12 Chéroux 2011, p. 47. 13 Cf. the interview with Willem Popelier in this volume. 14 Cf. the video recording of the lecture “It is difficult” by Alfredo Jaar in the context of the symposium on 9./10.6.2012 on the occasion of Bild – Gegen – Bild on the website of the Haus der Kunst Munich: (last watched on 10 July 2012). The press photograph of the “Situation Room” made its way into the artistic practice and art-historical research with incredible speed. The research group “Materiale Kulturanalyse” (material cultural analysis) and the methods office of the Stiftung Universität Hildesheim dedicated the interdisciplinary workshop “Hillary’s hand. On contemporary political iconography” on 18/19 November 2011 to this topic in the form of eight picture analyses. Cf. Schulz 2011, p. N3. 15 Alfredo Jaar in the lecture “It is difficult”, 9.6.2012, Haus der Kunst Munich. 16 Cf. On the identity-based photgraphy and the way it is worked on in artistic practice. Print 2004; Regener 1999 and 2003. 17 Sekula 2003, p. 300.

Chéroux, Clément: Diplopie. Bildpolitik des 11. September, Konstanz 2011. Drück, Patricia: Das Bild des Menschen in der Fotografie. Die Porträts von Thomas Ruff, Bonn 2004. Lippmann, Walter: Public Opinion, New York 1922. Hoffmann, Felix: Bildidentitäten. Eine Einführung, in: Unheimlich vertraut. Bilder vom Terror, ed. by idem., exhib. cat C/O berlin, Cologne 2011, p. 12–27. Holert, Tom: Visuelle Antagonismen und die Kritik des Rahmens, in: Bild Gegen Bild, ed. by Patrizia Dander and Julienne Lorz, hib. cat Haus der Kunst, Cologne 2012, p. 30–45. Meynen, Gloria: Insel als Kulturtechnik (Ein Entwurf), in: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 01 (2010), Berlin, p. 79–91. Regener, Susanne: Fotografische Erfassung: Zur Geschichte medialer Konstruktionen des Kriminellen, Munich 1999. Regener, Susanne: Das Phänomen Serienkiller und die Kultur der Wunde, in: Von der Lust am Zerstören und dem Glück der Wiederholung, ed. by Irmgard Bohunovsky-Bärnthaler, Klagenfurt 2003. Stefan Schulz: Kriegsfotografie ohne Krieg, in: FAZ, 23. November 2011, p. N3. Strauss, David Levi: Über Bin Ladens Leiche: Das Zurückhalten und Ersetzen von Bildern – von Abu Ghraib bis Abbottabad und darüber hinaus, in: Bild Gegen Bild, ed. by Patrizia Dander and Julienne Lorz, exhib. cat. Haus der Kunst, Cologne 2012, p. 62–71. Weibel, Peter: Die Presse im Spiegel der Theorie, in: Art and Press. Kunst, Wahrheit, Wirklichkeit, ed. by Walter Smerling, exhib. cat. Martin-Gropius-Bau, Cologne 2012, p. 91–95.

List of illustrations
Fig.1 Corpse of Che Guevara laid out Vallegrande, Bolivia, 10 October 1967, photograph, in: Bild Gegen Bild / Image versus image, ed. by Patrizia Dander and Julienne Lorz, exhib. cat. Haus der Kunst, Cologne 2012, p. 65. Fig.2 The executed sons of Saddam Hussein in the US military morgue at Baghdad airport, Iraq, 25 July 2003, photograph, in: ibid., p. 63. Fig.3 Unknown author: Fake picture of Osama bin Laden’s corpse, 2 May 2011, numerous Internet sources. Fig.4 Hans-Peter Feldmann: 9/12 Titelseite / Front page, 2002 [12.09. front page], 151 ink-jet prints, in: Bild Gegen Bild / Image versus image, ed. by Patrizia Dander and Julienne Lorz, exhib. cat. Haus der Kunst, Cologne 2012, p. 114. Fig.5 Situation Room, press photograph by Pete Souza, 1 May 2011, White House website. Fig.6 Unknown author: Image manipulation of photograph of Situation Room, (last seen on 10 July 2012).

Back to the top