How does the world see the world?

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


Your work Osama Papers deals with the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and how this event was represented in the media. We see the front pages of various newspapers that show portraits of Osama as a living person. The newspapers on the 3rd of May show the same intact face although he’s already dead. Could one say that this work is on the presence of images within the mass media and at the same time on their absence? Is this mediated portrait a kind of camouflage technique that covers other pictures that are not shown?
The work deals not so much with the death of Osama bin Laden, but more with the proceeding of media in conveying information. Clearly it has links with the newspapers Hans-Peter Feldmann collected, but on a totally different level. The fact that the United States killed Osama bin Laden is a symbolic act; there’s no news in that. I mean, we call that news, but it’s purely symbolic. It’s not that the world has become much safer since he died. It’s now ten years since he became the architect of what’s also a symbolic event. Osama was really smart. It’s really dangerous to say that, but the crashing into the twin towers was not a big event but rather a very intelligent and well thought-out one. It was very bad and people died, but actually it’s a ‘small’ event where not many people died. If you want to kill a lot of people then you fly into a football stadium or a music festival with 10 or 20 times the amount of people. It’s symbolic; it focused on a big visual impact. The question was what the world would see as an image. So here it’s the same question: what will the world see? In contrast to 9/11 there are no pictures now, but we are so trained in seeing the news through pictures. The news as represented by the newspapers has changed. Everybody reads news on the internet; a lot of newspapers have become smaller, focused more on pictures, and every important news item has to be represented through pictures. You could almost say that there’s no news otherwise. Here the only news is that some big country killed some important person. But you won’t see pictures on which you see that he died. You’ll see a portrait, his face, and then a text stating that he died or something like that. Newspapers used to communicate the fast news but nowadays they’re a slow medium, because modern fast news can be found on the internet. A newspaper now has more time to think about how to present printed news than, say, the same news on the newspaper’s internet website. So you could imagine they’re thinking thoroughly about bringing the news in a different light, with different visuals or visions or whatever, but you see that they all end up using the same image.

Let’s go back to this particular mediated face of Osama. Would you say that this is a portrait? Maybe in a double sense, because in most cases Osama is situated right next to Obama, it’s like an ‘Osama-Obama’ double-portrait. At the same time there are other pictures that surround this double portrait. I’m thinking of the image of the “Situation Room” that the White House placed very consciously in the media as the official response after the death of Osama. It’s an image of how the representatives of the United States, both military and politically, view the murder of Osama bin Laden. The scene is not shown to the public; in the very act of seeing the picture the public is excluded from seeing the event itself. Somehow this image together with the two faces is an interesting constellation on the frontier between seeing and not seeing ...
That’s interesting. For the first time you see that nowadays true power comes with the ones who don’t show pictures. It used to be the other way around. You had power if you could show something. Today, when almost everything is an image, we live in screens and in pictures, suddenly true power comes with those who can keep pictures from being seen by others. At the same time there’s still an old fashioned notion of the photograph; people want to see the photograph in order to see if something is real. Everybody knows that. When you see a picture it’s not the truth or the real world, it’s a picture. But at the same time there’s this big discussion: “Why don’t we see images of him? We don’t believe that he was killed, this must be some kind of conspiracy. I don’t believe that he’s dead, because I don’t see pictures of the corpse.” This is really interesting, because you could say this for every picture you see.

That would be the construction of the image as evidence. The media left out the evidence of the corpse of Osama. You said that we want photographical pictures as some kind of evidence; on the other hand everybody is aware of image manipulation. But you would say that there remains a longing for reality within pictures?
Yes, a lot of pictures are treated in that way. Most pictures in the news don’t add anything to the news layer; they’re just an illustration of what the news is. Few newspapers or other media use images in addition to the written word, to the news fact. Most use images in a very illustrative way: you read something, you see something; you see something, you read something—and it’s exactly the same ...

But on this wall we have different text-image relationships. There are different constellations and, when I think of your other works, this relation is quite important to you. How would you say the written word changes the image? Is it important or not to have this context?
... of every different newspaper you mean?

Exactly. You could have chosen only one front page of, let’s say, The New York Times ...
Let’s say there had been pictures of his death, many pictures, like there were on the twin towers. Then I don’t think I would have ended up making this work. What fascinates me is that everybody uses exactly the same image, just a portrait of a man, because there are no images of this specific news event. Once you say his name, everybody knows what he looks like, everybody gets the same image in his or her head, and I think that’s fascinating. Also because he became an iconic face, even more so than before he was killed, because his portrait was used so extensively due to the lack of images of his death. The images were not distributed to the media in order to prevent martyrdom ...

... like Saddam Hussein ...
... and Gaddafi, and then you see that something like a face, in this case Osama’s face, suddenly becomes an iconic figure more than his personal face. And you see this with Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein as well. The media shows extensive footage of how they were treated once they’d been caught. When Gaddafi was captured I watched CNN, which warned you with sentences like “this is very graphic.” After this warning they showed this very shocking mobile film of Gaddafi’s capture and then they went back to the studio. But half an hour later when anchor men were still in the studio talking, the same images appeared behind their heads as illustrations to the news without giving any more warnings that “this is graphic imagery.” So there is this feeling of really tearing down the iconic state of a hostile person and what he stands for through showing how it ends with him: “This is the bad guy and what it all leads to in the end, how it ends with him.” With Osama there’s nothing like that; his face remains an iconic symbol of what he stands for: as an enemy to our western morals, to our western society.

Maybe one could describe this symmetrical relationship of the portraits of Osama and Obama. You talked about the representational aspect of their faces; both stand for power, political power, more in the sense that they represent the same kind of power in a doubled figure. This aspect is related to in your other work Your Weekly Address. In the Osama Papers you have an event that is represented in this particular kind of absence of pictures in the media at one point in time. And in Your Weekly Address you have a duration piece that extends over a long period of time ...
Exactly, but at the same time they are, in a way, the same. As you correctly said, they both stand for power and a political viewpoint and they’re also the faces of each of those powers. Obama is the first president to really use images or media on a different level than ever before, very professionally, very intelligently, almost conceptually. He, or his office, were the first who really knew how to deal with images in the media in this era of digital imagery and widespread internet access. For instance, when Obama became president, when he was sworn in as President of the United States of America ...

... he made a mistake in that situation (both laugh) ...
... yeah, that moment, when he said it and when it was definite and official, at that point the website of the White House was transformed. Before, you had the old White House website which was really boring. There wasn’t so much to see, for instance you could see a slide show of 15 images of what the oval office looked like and there was some small news, etc. And from the moment he was officially president the website immediately changed and became this extensive website with media, a lot of pictures, a lot of videos and ‘transparent’ stuff, social stuff, and everything was very precisely edited, almost like a procedure of some kind. Everything was so well constructed ...

... a very reflective way of presenting yourself through different media.
Absolutely, and he (or his office) is very aware of this fact. You see the effects in the world, how he’s perceived and how everybody ... I mean, if you say “Obama” you draw everybody’s attention to one person. With Osama it’s the same. He had used the same mechanism. “How does the world see the world?” and “How can I use that to my advantage?” Obama started making these ‘weekly addresses’ every Saturday from the day after he was elected in November 2008, but in the visual communication they were still searching, you can see that. The first ‘weekly address’ was a kind of a messy shot close to his face; there was a plant behind him and an American football. The next week he’s behind a desk, everything is really formal, an American flag, etc. And the week after it looks like the same desk, but if you look close enough it’s a completely different room, there’s a different background, he’s sitting in front of a window, outside there’s this building. The next week the building is gone, it’s a different office where he’s sitting, it’s a different desk, everything is different but it looks the same, apart from some slight changes. That’s why I picked up the ‘weekly addresses’. They’re the main structure for my project of the representation of Obama, because they enabled me to reflect this whole notion of building an identity through a precise procedure. If he travels abroad the whole team who makes these movies travels with him and makes the movie over there. When you see how they do it, with the lighting, the setting, it’s like a whole operation every week again. They film it on Friday and broadcast it on the internet on Saturday. It’s so precise that I decided to print a still from every single speech, placing these pictures on top of each other in a very concentrated way. I constantly focus on this repetition of his face and how he’s structured, how he’s made in the image, over and over and over again. At the same time you see him aging; he’s going gray and he’s getting more lines on his face, etc.

So the whole concept of the work is based on the notion that you have repetition and variation at the same time. It’s all arranged on a timeline with a temporal rhythm in it. The ‘weekly address’ is broadcast every week for years. In your work you also use a rhythm that’s evoked by the still photos in relation to the filmic movement. I think that your gesture with the hands is quite important within the picture. It not only reflects the technical precondition of the filmic image that projects singular images, but you are constantly trying to find the right position for the photos with your hands. The center of this whole work is Obama’s head. There is an accumulation of pictures; you place one picture on top of the other, the new picture is bound to the previous one being concealed. That can still be seen at the edge ...
... yes, it depends on the framing of that week ...

... there’s an accumulation of pictures that shows the materiality of it, layered pictures, you can see the repetition and you emphasize it with the gesture of your hands ...
You could also choose to do it as a slideshow, where slides are flashed on top of the previous ones, but then you would only focus on a gimmick. You could also choose to have a stack of paper and put it in place. I’ve chosen not to do that. This work is not projected in these formal ways (pointing to the wall) but on a flat surface. I change the contextual form because we’re used to seeing these images in those specific ways. My question is: “How do we find things normal?” So if I use the pictures in a different form, in a different context—suddenly there are printed stills and you see me placing them on the table on a flat surface—you start looking at them and framing them in a different perspective, literally and symbolically. Since it’s a movie on a flat surface, even if it’s a huge stack of paper, it doesn’t grow, it won’t get you any further than just the surface. The repetition of the face focusses on his face as an icon and at the same time it’s just the surface again, again and again; you won’t get any further than that.

But there is another component in Your Weekly Address. It lies in the “Your” of the “Weekly Address.” It addresses the people, the Americans, with a specific content. We as Europeans are not directly addressed. He speaks about American values, democracy ...
... the western universal ...

... value system, and that system is bound to this one face. You decided not to include the sound. Why?
The image is much more powerful than what he’s telling you, or, to be more precise, what he’s telling the American public. What he’s telling you is always the same, it’s so structured, we all know this already, it’s a repetition of messages. By seeing his face we get the idea already. The same with newspapers; without the image you can’t sell the newspaper. The image is the main point of focus in our society nowadays. People want to see images; we always want to see a face.

There’s this book called The King’s Two Bodies by Kantorowicz that explores a twofold history of kings as having two bodies, one symbolic body and one corporal body. Maybe that’s a useful distinction in this context. In the work on the newspaper images of Osama the dead body, the corpse, is not shown; it’s replaced by the intact face. Maybe that’s an interesting historical reference. Of course, there has been a discourse for centuries on how to present the body of power.
With state power, but also with the representation of personal lives. It’s the same with the book I made about my own youth with my twin brother. You could say that it’s a very personal project, a very personal book and at the same time it has nothing to do with my personal character, with who I am as a private person. I’m the subject of the project and also the maker and these are two completely different people. When I talk about that project I talk about it as the one who created the work and when I’m with friends and I talk about my youth I’m a completely different person. Then I talk about what I feel, what I think, and not so much about what happened and what the facts are. The book does only that. It doesn’t judge people, in that sense it has no moral to it. It’s about the same person, but still it’s completely different.

Obviously there’s this very personal approach in your work with the private portraits, self-portraits, the works on you as a twin, and on the other hand you’ve recently made works on official political portraits in the media. Would you see a connection between these two approaches?
I couldn’t have made the works on Osama and Obama without This is me & This is me; they’re very closely connected. This is me & This is me I made after I’d made the publication on my youth ____ and Willem. Often I was asked to exhibit the two works at the same time, but I always refused. At the end of the book there are family pictures, just as This is me & This is me is made out of old family pictures. But they have nothing to do with each other; it’s a completely different approach and a different idea. I don’t want them to get mixed up, it seems too obvious to put them together and I’m afraid the different ideas of the two projects will overlap and then become less clear and less strong. This is me & This is me is really the turning point in my thinking towards what my work is about and what my fascination is. The statement in this project is: “If I look at a picture of myself I don’t know who I am.” How can I look at pictures of myself then? What do they mean to me if I don’t even know if I’m looking at myself or at my twin brother?

Would you say that this perception also applies for people who aren’t twins?
Yes, something interesting happens when I place the pictures next to each other. Most people ask me: “Why don’t you just ask your mother or your father?” That’s an important part, that’s what we’re used to. I can ask it and they can answer it and they will tell me for instance: “You’re the one on the left.” But then I start to look not with what I see but with what I know. That’s how we approach a lot of photography in general and specifically a lot of portraits. An important portrait is a portrait of somebody who’s important. We know that he or she is important, that’s why the portrait becomes important.

But not in private photography ...
Also for private photography, because if you look at a private family album of a total stranger it tells you nothing, but when you’re part of the family, it’s an important family album, the pictures are important to you. So with This is me & This is me the obvious usage of portraits suddenly became very interesting for me. I realized how important it is to reflect on that, as I’ve always reflected myself through my twin brother. A lot of twins say “I have a living mirror,” but I had a living mirror just for a few years because we were separated in our youth for ten years. I’m on both sides in a way.

This double structure is interesting. In photo theory photography is often described as a mirror function that needs this double structure of the real thing and its representation. There’s the promise of the two at the same time. But there’s a dynamic between the two sides. Roland Barthes once wrote in La chambre claire that in the process of taking a picture the subject somehow becomes an object. He describes it as a ghostlike identity in the middle of everything—presence and absence, reality and representation. That could be a fundamental aspect in the relation between self-construction and photographic image.
True. Maybe that’s also why people sometimes react to photographs in very aggressive ways. Often we think of representation as making a person into a fixed object, a fixed idea of someone. If that someone is yourself, and we don’t like that picture, it can become problematic if we consider pictures as true representatives of ourselves. We talked about This is me & This is me and the connection between that work and Osama Papers and Your Weekly Address. It’s the same idea. In one case it’s the construction of my own identity as a picture and in the other it’s the construction of what I think I know of somebody who I don’t know, who everybody knows but nobody knows, except close relatives. It’s all about what a picture tells you about the identity of a person and how we use that. Everybody’s used to saying: “Just ask your parents.” Nobody pays attention to the fact that it’s very strange to say: “If they can tell you, the problem is solved.” And that we all believe that the problem has been solved or the question has been answered, instead of just saying: “I’m both boys, because I recognize myself in both of them.” It’s a reality; if I recognize myself in one boy then I can say that it’s me, but if it’s the same with the other boy, why not say: “That’s also me.” From there on it’s the same as saying the word ‘Obama’ and everybody has the same image in their head, one they all use and deal with in the same way.

© 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.



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