This now-famous photo of the US president Barack Obama and his team in the White House ‘Situation Room’ has been seen around the world. While there’s no denying the scene took place, a closer look at the image reveals it was carefully airbrushed to get a specific message across.
This photo was taken by US photographer Pete Souza on May 1 in the ultra-secure conference room from which US special military operations are planned and monitored. In it are Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice-President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and other high-ranking U.S. government and military officials. The group is watching live footage of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and the atmosphere is visibly tense.
The photo was analysed with software called Tungstene, produced by French company eXo maKina. The software uses various filters to detect the different stages of alterations a photo may have undergone. In this case, the parts of the photo that have been digitally altered are highlighted in red.
A few zones clearly stand out – and a closer look at which ones they are give us a pretty good idea of the message the White House may have wanted to convey when it released this image.

- The light on and around Hillary Clinton was enhanced, while other parts of the photo were slightly darkened. This may be because Clinton’s stricken expression is what confers the most intensity to the photo.
 - On the laptop computer in front of Clinton lies a document, probably a military map, which has been noticeably blurred. This tends to indicate its highly confidential character, which the White House wanted to protect. What the analysis of the photo reveals, however, is that the documents around and under the blurred map, including what appears to be a satellite photo, were in fact highlighted. In this case, the alterations seem intended to draw attention to the documents, rather than away from them. The resulting message stresses the top-secret nature of the operation, and may have been intended to convey the idea that Hillary Clinton was well on top of the military strategy.
- The left side of Obama’s strained face was also highlighted, apparently to further stress the tension of the scene.
- Finally, the numerous medals on Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb’s uniform (seated, centre) were brightened, possibly to highlight his authority as a military commander. In fact, the most high-ranking military officer in the room is Admiral Mike Mullen, the man in the beige shirt and tie standing right behind him (admittedly, however, he is not as visually impressive in this shot). 
Inexplicably, the bottom part of the tie of the unidentified man standing behind Robert Gates seems to have been added onto the photo altogether. One guess could be that the tie was added to hide the man’s White House badge, which would have been close enough to read, therefore revealing his identity.
None of the elements in the photo (apart from the tie) are actually fake, but the alterations the image underwent all aim for the same effect: to enhance the impression of tension, but at the same time of efficiency and power, that the White House spin doctors hope to convey.