Many people find this White House Situation Room photo intensely affecting, but can’t explain why. I think I can.
Here is how Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post tried to account for it today:
The now-famous Situation Room photo … may become the most downloaded Flickr image of all time. Why is that image so captivating? A few thoughts:
First, there’s the mystery of it. We don’t know what they’re seeing or hearing. We don’t know if they’re witnessing the death of Osama bin Laden or merely getting a second-hand narration of it from Leon Panetta (the White House has been very fuzzy on this). We know only that all of these very important and powerful people have simultaneously stopped talking. This is an historic silence. Even Biden isn’t talking! And Hillary Clinton is covering her mouth — the universal gesture of tension, of I-can’t-breathe, of I-don’t-know-how-this-is-going-to-turn-out.
Second, it’s so plain. It’s so uncomposed. There’s something shockingly bland and ordinary about the setting. The room looks small. [Etc.]
I don’t think this really gets to the heart of the matter. Of course we know that the image suggests certain emotions. The question is why do these get through so powerfully, from a mere image?
When I saw the Situation Room photo, and felt what other people apparently feel, I immediately remembered having had a similar experience before — one which prompted me to wonder, and to try to explain, why some images are so affecting.
This happened at the remnants of Dachau concentration camp — which had been turned into a museum — outside Munich, many years ago. Like all the other tourists there, I saw the places where the horrors took place, and then walked slowly through a room with black and white photos taken during the years when the concentration camp had been in operation. What I found puzzling then, and also a bit disturbing because it seemed an inappropriate reaction, was that I was most moved not by seeing the actual rooms and buildings, nor even by seeing the photos of skeletal people dying or dead and stacked like wood, but instead by seeing the photos of the American GIs as they liberated the camp. Their faces were haunted, confused, incredulous — and of course these were guys who in most cases would have experienced many horrors already, as the war wound down.
What made those images of the GIs so powerful, I hypothesized at the time, was that they contained fellow humans with whom I unconsciously identified. That act of imagination allowed me to feel much of the emotion expressed in their eyes. Why couldn’t I feel as much emotion from the other images or places? I guess that an inhibitory reflex explains it: The prefrontal, executive brain says, “this is not happening now; it’s in the past; you don’t have to get too emotional.” And it suppresses the subcortical emotional reaction. But seeing another human at the scene who is a plausible representative of me somehow allows that emotion to get through without triggering the inhibitory reflex as strongly. Possibly that’s because it works through the general “mirroring” property of our perceptual system, the same one that makes us wince when we see someone else hurt in real life.
I suspect that this difference in emotional power between ordinary images and those containing a mirror-able representative is enhanced in modern life or is even entirely a weird side-effect thereof — and that people who come from premodern cultures, in which everyday reality is always real and tangible, not mediated by images on a screen in the living room, would have less trouble experiencing emotion from realistic images whatever the images depict. (That would be true especially for very realistic moving images, e.g., in a big-screen movie, whereas still photos may be hard to process generally, for premoderns who have never looked at them before.)
So my hypothesis is that the White House Situation Room scene is powerful because there are people in it with whom we identify, and whose emotional experience we therefore mirror.
To be more accurate, I should write “presumed emotional experience” instead. We don’t really know what the people in that photo were experiencing. Apparently they were not watching real-time video from the scene in Pakistan; and maybe only had audio from Panetta at CIA at the time the photo was taken. Also, about the expression on Hillary Clinton’s face: Remember, this is Hillary Clinton. She calculates, she triangulates; she poses; and she probably feels that that’s an inescapable part of the game of being a successful public official. So if a photographer is about to snap a photo of this historic and (in theory) very consequential event, Clinton’s mind is going to be on how she should look, to the rest of the world, after the deadly deed is done. And I suspect that she deliberately chose to look mildly horrified, mildly distanced from the act, even though she wasn’t really experiencing that emotion. Just my suspicion. (And here is her latest spin, now that everyone knows she was not watching the raid in real time.)