Can presidents and politicians control their image? Alexander offers perspective in his book, The Performance of Politics:
“Reporters, editors and other commentariat constitute a giant digital prism through which every candidate’s performance must pass, distorting the light and displacing the verbal and visual images that pass between. ‘For the broad public,’ Obama rues in The Audacity of Hope, ‘I am who the media say I am. I say what they say I say. I become who they say I’ve become'” (1).
In what some would call a calculated public relations move, and what others would consider recording history, recent presidents have employed an official personal photographer. The photog follows the president from sun up to sun down, capturing every handshake, diplomatic meeting and stately departure through the lens of his camera. Then, the White House photography office releases a select few pictures every so often to the press and public. The rest? Stowed away for historical reference, a visual library documenting every moment of a president’s legacy. So which is it? History or publicity?
Undoubtedly, the historical value of a presidential photographer is immeasurable. The photographs of John F. Kennedy playing with Caroline and John-John in the Oval Office has become an American icon, along with the picture of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the presidential oath on Air Force One after JFK’s assassination, or Barack Obama in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden. Photos like these, along with hundreds of thousands of others, will stand the test of time, giving future American citizens a comprehensive retrospect of presidents past.
But, presidents aren’t dumb. They understand that these photographs shown to the masses cultivate public opinion, and they act accordingly. Lyndon B. Johnson hired the first personal presidential photographer, Yoichi Okamoto, in an attempt to have the same endearing reputation as Kennedy had. LBJ even “edited all White House pictures that were to be released” (2). A New York Times article notes, “If LBJ’s popularity began to slide, his aides would direct him to bowl with his daughter or hold his wife’s hand while walking in the garden so the nation would find him friendly” (3). There’s no doubt that presidents willingly use these constant photo opportunities to their political advantage.
Pete Souza is the current presidential photographer to Barack Obama. In The President’s Photographer, Souza offers his perspective on his role: “I take what I do very seriously, knowing that the most important aspect of my work is creating a historical visual archive of this Presidency” (4). But recently, Souza came under fire on Twitter after two political pundits called for more free media access to the White House. The tweet that began the controversy was from Glenn Thrush, a Politico writer who covers the White House: “[Pete Souza] is a very good photog — but it would be nice to see White House offer photojournalists more access to Obama.” This seemingly innocent statement invited a flurry of opinions, including agreement from Ron Fournier, the editorial director for the National Journal, who responded, “Agree. He is a good photog, but his job is now PR. Need skeptical eyes on Presidents.”
The Twitterverse continued to react, bringing Souza to the point of responding with this statement: “Thanks to all those coming to my defense… for doing my job.”
The official description of the presidential photographer’s “job” depends on whom you ask. Valid argument and examples can be drawn in support of those who see the photographs as history or as image control. The reality is, it’s a mixture of both. George H. W. Bush’s official photographer, David Valdez, may have said it best: “I can become a photojournalist or an ad man. I switch into those roles as they come into play” (2).
(1) Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
(2) Baum, Geraldine. “Up close and presidential — Chief executive’s personal photographer makes compromises in return for unique access.” Houston Chronicle 7 October 1990.
(3) Goldberg, Vicki. “Photography view; The Pictures That Serve a President’s Image.” The New York Times 12 October 1997.
(4) Bredar, John. The President’s Photographer. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2010.