This photo was taken the day Osama bin Laden was shot and killed. But, in contrast to popular belief, it was not taken at the moment bin Laden was killed. In fact, no one in this room even witnessed that moment.
Air Force Brigadier Generall Brad Webb was sitting at the head of the table, monitoring the progress of Operation Neptune Spear shown to him by an unmanned drone flying over bin Laden’s compound. As time passed, members of Obama’s national security team filtered into the small Situation Room. It should be noted that there are actually several Situation Rooms in the White House, and the one most commonly used is quite large and set up like a conference room. The president sits at the head of the table and discusses strategy with the team he has compiled. For this event, however, they chose to use a small Situation Room and limit the access to this information to fewer people. Soon after Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden entered the room, President Obama walked in and said, “I need to watch this.”
At 4:06 pm on May 1, 2011, White House photographer Pete Souza, stuffed into a corner of the room, took this photo. (Notice that a confidential document next to Clinton is obscured.) “With so few chairs, others just stood at the back of the room. I was jammed into a corner of the room with no room to move. During the mission itself, I made approximately 100 photographs, almost all from this cramped spot in the corner,” he said. This photo, however, is not of the moment bin Laden was killed. Despite the Daily Mail‘s report that Obama and his team were able to watch the exact moment bin Laden was shot, (subsequent) Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that’s not what happened. Clinton also commented on the report: “We could see or hear nothing when [the SEALs] went into the house. There was no communication or feedback coming so it was during that time period everyone was particularly focused on just trying to keep calm and keep prepared as to what would happen.”
Instead, as Obama stated, the photo was probably taken the moment the room found out one of the helicopters had crashed. The crash happened before SEAL Team Six entered bin Laden’s compound when one of the helicopters took a hard landing in a neighboring walled lawn. The cause for the crash is unknown, but it’s theorized that temperature changes or descent through its own rotor wake were possible factors. Though no one was killed in the crash, the incredibly important element of surprise was put at risk. Luckily, the mission continued and completed. The aircraft, specially designed for stealth, was destroyed as quickly as possible so enemies could not steal the design. The only piece left was the tail, which landed outside the compound wall.
The photo is not iconic simply because of the day it was taken. The body language and people in the room create a situation to be analyzed for years to come. Most notable is Clinton’s expression. The New York Times wrote, “She is what the French critic Roland Barthes called the ‘punctum,’ the not necessarily conspicuous detail that gives a photograph its emotional resonance.” Clinton described it as being “the most intense 38 minutes of my life.” But the fact that Hillary Clinton and Audrey F. Tomason (far back) are even in the room is significant as well. Historically, women would not be involved in such a high-intensity government mission, let alone be allowed to watch it unfold with the president. The third incredibly significant detail is Obama’s seating position. Traditionally, the president sits at the head of the table and projects “machismo” very clearly. In this instance, however, Obama is not at the head of the table, in the center of the room, or even in the tallest chair. He chose to sit next to Webb, allowing someone else to take point and be in control – a big change from other presidents and leaders.
Just because I thought this was kind of funny: