This week, much has been made of the fascinating photograph published by the White House, showing President Obama surrounded by his national security team as they followed the Bin Laden killing, as it happened. The newspapers I’ve read have all carried a knowing analysis of the image, explaining the telling body language and identifying each of the onlookers. Some of the less prominent figures, such as the Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason, suffered the indignity of being unrecognised by the press.
The photo has already been labelled iconic, which I think is an overused word in this era of highly accomplished photojournalism, but it may yet become the most popular photo of Obama’s Presidency (it is one of the most popular photos on Flickr ever). If It does, this will be no accident. The image is as masterful a piece of propaganda as you are ever likely to see. And, we’ve been here before.
The White House Flickr stream is touted as an emblem of open government. Photographer Peter Souza seems to have a free reign to wander around the Oval office and even the high-security Situation Rooms, with impunity. It conveys a message that there is nothing to hide.
The image in question is particularly good because it seems to portray a very long moment. If Souza had been filming the scene we imagine that it would not have looked very different from the still photograph… apart from some blinking. The uncritical analysis of the image in the press completely accepts this idea. The behaviour of the President during this operation (and indeed all those with a political interest in appearing strong, such as Vice President Biden, Hillary Clinton, and recently embattled Defence Secretary Robert Gates) has been defined by this image. When voters are asked “is Obama a strong leader?” (a hardy perennial in the opinion polls), this is the image they will remember when they agree.
However, a quick look at the photo’s attributes can remind us how manipulated this image actually is. For example, the file name for the image – which is assigned to it automatically by the camera – is P050111PS-0210. The file names of the images published either side of this one in the Flickr photo stream have the suffix 0106 and 0475, which means that Souza took 368 other photos around the same time, which he and the White House communications team chose not to publish. This is standard practice amongst all photojournalists – for every good photo, there are scores that are discarded because they do not quite capture the story you wish to convey. In this case, I’ll bet there are versions of this image that are under-exposed, or have Obama blinking, or of Joe Biden looking gormless, or with Robert Gates picking his nose, or Hillary Clinton with a double chin. Moreover, there will be others where Biden and Gates, on the extreme left and right of the image, are out of shot, which would be unacceptable.
Interestingly, there is a figure in a black jacket, standing next to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who is out of shot. This man stands with his arms folded (very Alpha Male) and he has a prime position behind Clinton and Gates. He must be as least as important as Tomason and Anthony Blinken (advisor to Joe Biden), both of whom have to peek over the shoulder of Bill Daley, just to get a look-in. I am not suggesting that this is some shadowy figure at the heart of a conspiracy – he might be some lesser aide or bodyguard. I just draw attention to him in order to point out how our gaze and opinions can be so easily directed. “If there aren’t photos then it didn’t happen” is an old newsroom adage. Add to that “If you’re not in the photo, then you weren’t there.”
Don’t get me wrong – I like President Obama, and I share his overall political outlook. One can hardly complain that he and his team choose to present themselves to the world in the best possible light. This is the essence of electoral politics, in fact. However, it is the job of the media to cast a critical eye over the images released to us by governments. The fact that Souza’s photo has been so swiftly elevated to ‘iconic’ status suggests to me that media due-diligence has not been performed in this case, which should be a cause for worry. Body language analyses and ‘who’s who’ type photo articles constitute fluffy, filler journalism. They are appropriate for Royal Wedding coverage, but not for matters of major geopolitical significance.