Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

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Detail from Situation Room showing classified documents in front of Hillary Clinton.
Pete Souza 2011 (wikipedia)

It’s the most inward form of photography writing to critique another writer’s thoughts, but reading a recent piece by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the work of White House photographer Pete Souza was a reminder that this sort of writing is sometime badly needed. It’s needed in this case less because Jones is a useful or thoughtful critic worthy of consideration but more because The Guardian gives him a platform with such authority that someone, anyone, needs to periodically take him to task over his writing, which vacillates between acerbic hatchet jobs and simpering fan pieces (although it must be said that ever so occasionally he does get it right). In his latest piece Jones fawns over the photographs produced by Souza during Obama’s two terms in office, swallowing the narrative these photographs are intended to transmit without even a moment’s reflection on the circumstances of their production. Even as he praises Souza as a photographer, Jones seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of looking at photographs, which is to always remember the photographer’s role in their creation.

Photographs are not portals on the world which appear unbidden, they are not utterances are given voice without someone articulating them. They are considered constructions, whether constructed in the moment of their shooting (and before) or in their selection, arrangement, contextualisation, and dissemination out into the world. Jones, who is normally so ultra critical of photography (indeed once calling the medium ‘flat, soulless and stupid’ in the context of fine art) manifestly fails in the role of a critic to ask even the most basic questions of the Souza’s images. Souza is very proficient photographer, and it’s not my intention to denigrate him on that front, but his photographs are unavoidably the product of an extremely effective press machine, one which exists to stage manage and represent the presidency in a very particular light which has absolutely nothing to do with creating an objective ‘chronicle’. It’s not for nothing that the visual analysis blog Reading the Pictures often analyses White House photographs critically (ironically Jones even links to an article on the site, presumably without having read much further). These photographs might speak the language of documentary, but in any traditional sense they are not, and Obama’s presidental career and his legacy are far more complicated than these photographs suggest.

In the United States Obama might perhaps be remembered less for what he did during his time in office than for the way his election itself seemed to push America closer to realising its founding creed of equality (even if some of the major markers for racial equality show widening gaps). While that narrative might appeal to American citizens keen to believe that their nation is realising it’s long held aspirations, it might have much less resonance in some parts of the world where the fallout of Obama’s two terms are likely to be remembered quite differently. These photographs speak little if at all of the revelations of absolutely massive US surveillance programs, the prosecution of more whistle-blowers than any previous president, and the escalation of illegal drone wars which have killed thousands of innocent people in states with which the United States is not even at war. This is to say nothing of the failure to shut the prison at Guantanamo bay, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Obama’s general record on secrecy, for example his administrations unwillingness to reveal the extent of the CIA’s torture program. Of course you can argue that mahy of these wrong doings were inherited, that Obama was just cleaning up his predecessors mess, or towing the presidential line, but to me doing so is a little like arguing about whether a photographer is responsible for a lab technician manipulating his photographs or not. These things happened (or in some cases didn’t) on Obama’s watch, and like it or not that makes these things as much a part of his legacy as Obamacare or his reset of relations with Cuba.

Souza’s photographs chronicle very few of these important things (in some respects it would be unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise) and where they occasionally do, as for example in the case of the now iconic photograph Situation Room, they do so in a way which is meticulously designed to send the ‘right’ message. In the case of Situation Room the calculated message is of a president taking his responsibilities incredibly seriously, indeed overburdened by them, surrounded by the wisdom of his accumulated advisors, and so on. The few truly informative details of this photograph is also the most overlooked; the blank laptop screens, a pixelated document on the laptop in front of Hillary Clinton and a binder on her lap marked TOP SECRET/CODE WORD/NOFORN (that last one the intelligence abbreviation for ‘no disclosure to foreign nationals’). These small items are to me the closest Souza comes to hinting at the true legacy of the last eight years, and indeed the last sixteen, which are a profound secrecy and the rigorous control of information. These are things which Souza as White House photographer is arguably a part of, and there have been regular criticisms from photographers and press organisations about the way the White House prioritises its own photography while restricting access for photojournalists. In 2013 Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’s head of photography, went so far as to write a piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of exercising an Orwellian control over the presidents image with the intention of producing ‘a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.’

Saying all of this is not to underplay the historic significance of Obama’s election and presidency, nor is it to question his remarkable charisma and what in a different time might have been termed his ‘common touch’ which is certainly demonstrated in many of Souza’s photographs. It is however to question the extent to which these things become a dense smokescreen around the figure of the president and his administration, and the way that issues which are arguably of far greater importance than Obama playing games with small children or dancing tenderly with an elderly woman get shifted into the background as a result. It’s worth looking at Souza’s very similar photographs of Ronald Reagan, who I suspect many Obama advocates would harbour far less positive feelings about, to see how these moments feel when the subject is someone whose policies you don’t agree with. Souza’s earlier photographs say nothing of Reagan’s divisive economic agenda, his escalation of the Cold War, the Iran Contra affair, the Invasion of Grenada, his retrograde views on HIV/AIDS, or any number of other things which we might now consider to be indelible parts of his legacy. As it was with Regan, so it is now with Obama. If Jones wants a true picture of these last two terms then by all means he is welcome to include some of Souza’s official schmaltz, but if he wants that chronicle to have a grain of truth in it Jones will need to look beyond the photographs on Whitehouse’s Instagram feed. He’ll need to look for photographs which for the most part are still waiting to be taken, or daresay I say it, constructed. Photographs which wait to be given voice in the cells of Fort Leavenworth, amongst the server racks of the NSA’s massive data centers, and in the remote mountains of Waziristan.

One thought on “Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

  1. Great read, thank you Lewis.

    It makes me wonder — who is the person editing the critical or even deleterious photos *out*? Will those photos ever be revealed? Will de Souza’s body of work from the Obama administration be different in that broader light? I suppose only time will tell.

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