DC Photo Week – The President’s Photographers

For DC photo week 2010, I went to see “The President’s Photographers: 50 Years Inside the Oval Office” at the National Geographic Museum. The exhibit opened with a quote by President Ford’s photographer, David Hume Kennerly about an understood rule in presidential photography. “We do not come with running commentary about what’s going on in the room. Photographers are not hired for their opinions, they are hired for their photos. And it is a tried and true fact, not only for the White House photographers but for anybody who comes in to shoot. If I walked into a meeting with President Obama and photographed it you couldn’t pull my fingernails out to get me to talk about it because it is unethical, unprofessional, and would result in those pictures not being taken any more. So you can’t do it.” Because of this, the viewer has to create a scene for themselves. They have to look at the visual and use their own imagination to answer why the President is sighing, or laughing, or smiling. It’s a different kind of photography because it puts more burden of the interpretation in the audience’s hands. The photographer provides the illustration while the viewer writes the story.

All these works tell stories of humanity. They have intrinsic value or worth because they share something with the audience that we otherwise do not see. Presidents are real people too. They smile, laugh, cry, wonder what’s to come, play sports, need a stress relief – presidents have emotions, they are human. We put our Country’s leaders on a pedestal and don’t even think to question our assumption that they’re doing something important constantly. These photos teach us about life, what it is and what it means. These works also convey a social message. The president is human. He or she should not be expected to change the world overnight or in a matter of mere months. People have lost realistic expectations beacause they envision the president to be a super hero. These works show he is not, he’s just a person like me and you.

These works have no lack of personal expression; instead they capture real scenes and real feelings. The photographer is making a statement by not showing the president in an upright, serious scene. The photographer made all these decisions consciously to show the audience a slice of life in the White House.

This photograph was taken by Robert Mcneely, the official photographer for the Clinton presidency. This unnamed photo is during a briefing on Air Force One and shows the President and his wife engaged in an issue together. They display their expressive personalities as Bill seems to be thinking “Oh my gosh, no way…” and Hillary’s similar reaction of “are you serious..” The date of this photo is not specified but by Hillary’s grown out hair, it appears to be towards the middle of the Clinton presidency around 1996. The photo is done in black and white so you are not distracted by unnecessary elements, but instead focus on the President and his wife’s chemistry and their reaction to recently heard news. It does not look expected. When I first looked at this photo, I saw Hillary’s hands and expression which reminded me of a small child at a scary movie. She doesn’t want to look, but she does anyway – and this conflicted nature is what indicates the news they are hearing is hard to handle.

The black and white really helps to capture the emotion. The composition of the photo is also noteworthy, as Hillary is above Bill- creating a very visually interesting scene since instead of reading left to right and seeing one person first, we see them both at the same time. Their is an obvious visual mood, but the picture leaves the viewer yearning to know what news they are hearing or have just heard. It’s a humorous, yet serious picture and the audience is aware that they do not know the whole story. It’s cropped so only Bill and Hillary are exposed and it looks like they’re in a board room rather than on an airplane.

Pete Souza, Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama, captures Obama blocking a shot of his personal assistant, Reggie Love. Love was on the NCAA Championship Duke basketball team. This picture shows other aspects of Obama’s life besides constant meetings, press conferences and decision making. It sheds light on the President’s “realness.” It’s an action shot that captures Obama blocking the basket, almost as a metaphor for his job to protect the country. Obama in mid-air looks focused and determined, showing his true qualities are unwavering, whether in the oval office or on the court. The photo is crisp and clear except Obama’s swatting hand at the top, showing intense action. The way the photo is framed, onlookers can feel the action moving up, as if they are jumping up with the players. Obama’s expression is one we see often. The same look of focus is in pictures where he’s in a suit meeting with the President of France or other notable leaders. Someone could easily superimpose his head or expression into another picture of him and it would be hard to tell since he always appears to be trying his hardest at everything he’s doing. This photo gives me a sense of comfort. I feel this portrays Obama ‘reaching new heights’ in everything he does, and he won’t stop jumping.

Obama throws a pass to an aide before a meeting in the Oval office. Souza captured this shot in April 2009.

Like the basketball photo, this picture shows off Obama’s time of leisure. People are rarely able to picture him in such situations. This picture is captured through a window, showing a genuine glimpse into the life and character of Barack Obama. Obama has a look of concentration, but also the beginnings of a smile about to creep in. It’s shot from the perspective that the viewer is looking through a window of the White House. We are bystanders to his life. What we see on the news or in the media is Obama shaking hands, and this refreshing image captures another aspect of his personality, his love for sports and he way to relax before serious meetings or engagements. ¬†You can’t see all of Obama because your view is obstructed by the sillouhette of a large black object, what appears to be a tree. The fact that it is not totally in focus and you can’t see the whole scene only makes it seen more genuine and unstaged. The way your eye moves, it feels like your looking past the actual frame of the window; it has depth.

The top picture shows Obama laughing with press secretary Robert Gibbs and personal aide Reggie Love before a reception in October 2009. The bottom picture was taken on Air Force One as Obama laughs with his senior aids while on his way to Singapore in 2009.

Souza took this photo when White House staffer, Carlton Philadelphia brought his family in. Knowing they had similar haircuts, Philadelphia’s son rubs Obama’s head after the President bent down. Obama also said the young boy pointed out all his gray hairs.

Souza took this picture in the Oval Office in 2009. Vermont Governor Jim Douglas came to discuss economic recovery with the President, but was first requested to assist the President in moving his couch. Like the above photos, this shows Obama is real. He does everyday things like you and me- such as moving a couch.

All these scenes show emotions and characteristics that are not usually publicized. Souza’s pictures offer insight. Hopefully these pictures will especially affect those who are hypersensitive to everything Obama does and fail to remember there’s a real person behind those tough decisions.


This picture was taken on inaugural night in 2009. This picture is a representation of innocence, as the audience looks back at Obama before his image was tainted by delay and tough decisions. This was before he was blamed for health care or the sinking economy. In this picture, he is oblivious to all the hardships to come, or maybe he knows but he wants one more night to be Barack Obama the man, rather than Barack Obama the President. This was before people lived in fear of the next Great Depression or blamed one man for many unavoidable problems, brought on by previous administrations, leaders and past decisions. This photo is about love. It’s about celebration and it’s about hope and the look in Barack Obama’s eyes as Michelle looks lovingly back is unmistakably real and heart warming. The mood is the joy of life. The composition of this photo only adds to it as all of Obama’s staff members are pretending to ignore the intimate and personal moment he is sharing with his wife. This is the end of privacy.


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