The White House Photographer

So apparently it’s been standard practice since Kennedy’s day to pick one official White House photographer, who then hires a flock of other photographers, and the minions shoot various public events but the head guy is the one allowed to wander around behind the scenes, snapping pics while the President is in meetings or on the phone.

According to this Daily Kos diary, Pete Souza is the current White House photographer, and previously held the post during Reagan’s second term. What’s different from Reagan’s day is twofold: first, Obama has apparently given the guy much more extensive access, and second, the White House posts his photos on Flickr.

Looking through them, what gets me is the role Souza’s work has in creating the narrative of a presidency. He’s not the only guy taking photos of Obama, of course, and photos are far from the only record we’ll have. But no matter how much you remind yourself that photos can be just as biased as any other form of art — timing, framing, post-processing — there’s still a subconscious tendency to accept them as “the truth.” And behind-the-scenes photos, doubly so: when the president is out in public, then of course we understand he’s performing a role, but surely in those moments when he’s alone, you see the real person behind the mask.

Except he isn’t alone, is he? The photographer is there. And just as the president is deciding, consciously or unconsciously, what face to show, the photographer is deciding — consciously or unconsciously — what to record.

There’s a startling amount of power in that.

When we see a shot of Obama with his feet on the Oval Office desk, it both frames him as a “regular guy” and connects him with a photographic tradition of other presidents. When we see his marked-up speech, it tells a story of intelligence and thoughtful preparation. When we see him standing alone before an event or while talking on the phone to some foreign leader, it reminds us of the burdens our nation’s leader bears; when we see him in a crowd, it connects him to the people. All of these things create a narrative, but a narrative always has a narrator, and in this case, it’s Pete Souza.

Let me be clear: I’m not bringing this up because I think it’s sinister. I think it’s an excellent idea to document these things, and given the circumstances, it’s amazing enough that one guy gets to run around in meetings and private moments, let alone the prospect of opening that up to multiple photographers. But it’s worth remembering that any documentation is always, always inflected by the person doing the documenting, and so it’s interesting to know who that person is.

0 Responses to “The White House Photographer”

  1. kateelliott

    I like these thoughts.

    And, also, they are fabulous photos.

  2. pentane

    When we see his marked-up speech, it tells a story of intelligence and thoughtful preparation

    Spoken like someone who has never worked for my boss…

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, that’s what I read out of it, anyway. It makes him come across as engaged, rather than a puppet mindlessly speaking the words someone else has written for him.

  3. gollumgollum

    You know, how much do i love that Obama’s speechwriter is Jon Favreau (but not that Jon Favreau) and that he’s been his speechwriter since 2005… when he was twenty-four? Awesome.

    And how much do i love this: On December 5, 2008, a picture of Favreau grabbing the breast of a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton was posted on Facebook. Favreau called Senator Clinton’s staff to offer an apology. They told him to not worry about it, saying, “Senator Clinton is pleased to learn of Jon’s obvious interest in the State Department, and is currently reviewing his application.”

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