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photography politics

Staging Politics: Beyond White House Access, the Photo Op is the Larger Issue

Obama Soccer Tunnel Mandela Service

(South Africans cheers President Obama waits in a tunnel at the soccer stadium before taking the state to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Media representatives and White House officials have started a series of meetings to discuss photographers’ access to the President. But it is unlikely that the bigger issue was on the table – access to what? If media organizations want to give us open journalism that pulls back the curtain on the theatre of politics, they have to use this moment to question the centrality of the photo op in the presentation of politics.

President Obama’s recent trip to the Nelson Mandela memorial service gave us another glimpse into what is at stake in the access issue. These two photos from Pete Souza and Stephen Crowley show both that some independent access is still possible, but that access may not produce radically different images. Souza captures, in his familiar style, the President silhouetted from behind, while Crowley records the crowd looking down into the same tunnel, with the arrangement and colour of the umbrellas on the left suggesting he is positioned only a yard or two in front of Obama.

On the flight to South Africa, with the President accompanied by the Bushes and Hilary Clinton, the access dispute was more evident. CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted that:

“Press photographers in the Air Force One pool on flights to/from South Africa were given no oppty to photograph Presidents Obama & Bush.”


(Dec. 10, 2013. Attendees look down into a stadium entrance at the state memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in the Soweto township of Johannesburg. Stephen Crowley – New York Times/Redux)

Regardless of their thirst for access, media organizations lapped up the White House provide images of the two presidents together, questioning their ability to support their protest with sanctions.

The media’s grievances have been stated strongly, with AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon calling White House provided pictures “visual press releases” that amount to little more than “propaganda.” Given the transformations of the new media economy, no administration now or in the future is going to forgo the opportunity to be its own broadcaster and publisher. Politicians have always wanted to bypass the gatekeepers and get their message direct to the public. The televised address from the Oval Office, or the live radio show in preference to the written journalists interview, are ways in which politicians seek to maximise control of their image. Now the platforms and tools have proliferated, and leaders as dorkish as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or evil as Syria’s Assad use Instagram accounts to offer their own visual account.

There is obvious merit to the substance of the media’s protests to the Obama administration. That there should be an “independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government” is an unimpeachable principle. But the debate cannot end there.

Souza bill signing

Access is a necessary but not sufficient condition for that independent view. Access is not a value in itself. Access does not, and historically has not, guaranteed a critical, visual account of politics. Yes, a critical account requires some access to the events and people to be recorded, but the larger question is what will image makers and editors do with that access?

In the midst of this controversy the White House released a picture of photographers recording a bill signing in the Oval Office. Many, including BagNewsNotes, took the release as a provocation to show ongoing access. Moments like this were well described by former White House photo editor Mike Davis:

Six highly skilled, professional photographers dash into the Oval Office, a sense of practiced urgency in their assessment of how to make the most telling photo of the president, in about a minute, as he signs a document or chats with someone before continuing the real business of his job.

Then the photographers are quickly ushered out to wait for the next historic event. They are members of the White House Photo Pool doing what’s called “a spray” — arguably the least desirable type of presidential photo-op.

Maybe this image was a provocation, but I read it differently. I read it in terms of the event the media wants to access, the photo op of the President at work in the Oval Office (something emphasized by the AP). Of course these moments need to be recorded, and that takes some access, but is pressing for “the spray” to be made up of a large number of independent photographers (as David Hume Kennerly argued) where the real fight should be? Christopher Morris proposed that a “pool photographer should be given special access for the day, basically to shadow the White House chief photographer, for let’s say 50 percent of the day or as the President’s schedule allows.” Will such access alone be the sufficient condition for critical visual journalism?

The juxtaposition of two photos in the New York Times article, “Photographers Protest White House Restrictions,” raises further questions about what is at stake in this controversy.

Souza’s privileged position got him the intimate family holiday portrait of the President swimming with his daughter, while restrictions on Doug Mills meant he was reduced to a long shot of the Obama’s lunching on a balcony. As this MSNBC report comparing White House imagery and independent pictures makes clear, Souza’s position does give him consistently cleaner and more intimate portrayals.

But do these cleaner, more intimate pictures offer a radically different image from the independent ones? How much better off would we be if Mills had been able to take the Souza shot? Would an independently shot, intimate family portrait be qualitatively different to one provided by the White House? Or would it be a case of independent journalism becoming complicit in the propaganda it wants to rightly resist? Doug Mills is right in this respect: the White House images are “all about controlling the image and putting the president in the best light…There’s no chance for a gaffe, or a bad hair day, or a sour expression, or much spontaneity when photographs are subject to approval by the presidential gatekeepers.” However, the controversy surrounding Michelle Obama’s sour expression in the now infamous Presidential Mandela ‘selfie’ shows, capturing such moments might not lead to the truth either.

It is worth noting that the role of the White House photographer began in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and came about because LBJ desired the photogenic public image that independent photographers had given John F. Kennedy, including now famous photographs like George Tames “The Loneliest Job” or Alan Stanley Tretick’s “John F. Kennedy Jr. under the Resolute Desk.” Access may have been easier, independent photographers may have taken the shots, but the propaganda value was at least as great as that produced in today’s social media feeds.

All this makes clear that the larger and more important issue has to be the photo op and how to report it visually. Photo ops are themselves, even before being photographed, moments of sanitization, reducing politics to theatre, regardless of whether they are photographed by independent or partisans. So much of the photography of politics involves a reciprocal staging – the event is staged so that an image can then be made without which the event would not exist – that what we need is a visual means of pulling back the curtain to see the event’s construction.


(A photograph of goats on a lawn sign directs reporters to where goats will be released at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, on Aug. 7, 2013. More than 100 goats will be taking over Washington’s Historic Congressional Cemetery to help clean up brush in an area away from the graves. The goats will graze 24 hours a day for six days to eliminate vines, poison ivy and weeds, while also ‘fertilizing the ground’. Charles Dharapak/Associated Press).

One thing we need are images that address the construction of the image, including pictures showing photographers in the photo, the set-up of the photo-op, or using particular visual strategies such as different angles, depth of field, and framing. We see them from time to time – Kiku Adatto’s 2008 book Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op argues they have been published from the early 1990s onwards – but they need to be the norm rather than the exception if we want the value of access to be realised. To situate the photo-op photographers can call attention to the peripheral elements that help make the scripted show. Campaign photos that show candidates speaking to small crowds in large venues (here or here) is one good example. David Burnett’s “Larry King, Clinton & Gore, and the Hair”  is a great picture of the pre-show ritual, and Charles Dharapak’s Instagrams of Washington photo ops show the political rituals.

What is interesting about Dharapak’s images is that he makes them on the side with his iPhone while producing standard news imagery with his DSLR. We need that relationship changed so that the subject and style of his Instagram’s are more central to visual political coverage. This is where the professional can potentially give us so much more than amateur – using their experience and knowledge of the photo op they can craft unique images that reveal more than the standard news snap.

The current antagonism between photographers and the White House needs to be broadened beyond the simple question of access. Yes, we should argue for open government and the independent coverage of “newsworthy activities of public significance.” That should be backed by media organisations refusing to run official images provided by the White House when independent access would previously have been given. But access cannot be a solution in itself. Media organizations should always ask, what are we being given access to? It is time to look at the bigger picture, and make the photo-op as much the subject, so we have a visual record of how events and issues are managed and staged.

(This post was first published on BagNewsNotes 18 December 2013)

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics

The killing of Osama Bin-Laden is another of those issues in which politics is located in or around the image. However, the debate about the rights or wrongs of releasing the post-mortem photograph obscures the fact that any such image will inevitably have been staged.

I’ve read the many arguments calling for the release of a picture of the dead Bin-Laden (see Pete Brook’s post of many links, as well as Joerg Colberg’s and Michael Shaw’s considered statements). In principle I would opt for openness and transparency, but in this instance I have a difficult-to-articulate unease about the calls for the Obama administration to disclose what they have got.

My unease stems from the fact that the killing was not an act of justice. Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway, just to be clear) this is not to suggest Bin-Laden should be mourned. The issue is how we think about our actions in the world. Watching crowds in the US come out on the streets to celebrate a killing is to see an ironic reversal. It’s easy to imagine many of those individuals scorning mourners at, say, Arab funerals for their ‘barbarism’ in the exultation of death. I imagine the release of the post-mortem photograph in this context, where it might function as the bounty hunter’s evidence that the outlaw is no more. I’m not sorry Bin-Laden is gone. I just don’t feel the need to see an image that will close the circle that began with George W Bush’s call to get him ‘dead or alive’ and effectively render the operation as just.

The images that have emerged around the killing of Bin-Laden show how much of the pictorial record of politics is staged. Staging is not the same as faking. Political photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. But political events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre. Photography is complicit in this act when it doesn’t look beyond the immediate frame.

The White House’s release of a series of photographs on its Flickr stream showing the President and his national security advisers in and around the Situation Room (see above) was a fascinating but carefully managed insight into the conduct of Bin-Laden’s killing. If the post-mortem photo were to be released, it would also be part of this managed stream. But it was a small detail around another picture in the Flickr stream, of President Obama addressing the media, that showed how central the photo-op is to politics.

In a fascinating account, Donald Winslow reveals how some of the photographs of the President delivering his television statement were “from a re-enactment of his 11:45 p.m. EDT speech, performed minutes later strictly for the benefit of still cameras.” The image shown here is from one of the official White House photographers in the room during the speech. Excluded from the live event were photographers shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times and a freelancer who was filling the ISP (Independent Still Photographer) pool photographer’s slot. As one of the four photographers present recounted:

President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

Many newspapers overlooked that detail in the photos caption and ran it as record made live. When they discovered it had been staged there were some angry responses, but as Winslow reported “the ‘photo op’or re-staging of a Presidential speech for the benefit of still cameras has been a long-standing practice for various administrations.”

The concern about the production of this picture deflects attention from a wider issue. If we take a step back we can see that most of the formal moments that feed news photography are theatrical and thus effectively staged. Things like a politician’s press conference, campaign speech, factory tour, walkabout, and voter meet-and-greet take place in order to produce images. (As someone who used to work as a Senator’s press secretary in Australia, I’ve participated in the organisation of these various devices). If the lens is only trained on what is in front of it that construction is missed. Those that are railing at this moment from Obama’s speech generally fail to expose the endemic conceit of daily politics and its visual coverage.

Some photographers do pull back, take in the wider scene, and show how our pictures are often of staged events framed in particular ways. From extreme situations we have Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and other examples of what some in photography inelegantly call a “goat fuck.”

From domestic politics, I recall (but cannot at the moment find) some great David Burnett photographs showing US presidential campaign stops where a vast auditorium hosts a tiny crowd of party faithful who, when pictured, look as though they fill the place. From the UK we have this great image (above) by Simon Roberts from his 2010 Election Project (which he discusses in a podcast here, starting at 51:30). This reproduction cannot do justice to the details of the large print version, but it nonetheless shows Brown in the center being interviewed by a television crew in the ‘press pen’ while other journalists and staff mill around the edges, greatly outnumbering voters. This image shows the context of a campaign stop, and happened to record one citizen, Gillian Duffy (centre, on the footpath in a blue skirt), starting to shout at the Prime Minister, precipitating an encounter that escalated into a major political crisis for Labour.

Images that address the construction of images, pictures that reveal the pervasive nature of the photo-op in our political culture, are essential to photography’s critical purpose. Calling for more of them, as opposed to a post-mortem document, might be the best response to a week in which the political and the visual have once again been enmeshed.

UPDATE 7 MAY 2011: I have revised paragraph 7 above in line with the Jeremy Nicholl’s final point in his first comment below. It now makes clear the official photo used above is from the live speech, and that it was the five news photographers who had to capture the reenactment. Jason Reed of Reuters wrote about these events on the Reuters blog and included a photo he made showing the others news photographers capturing the reenactment. After initial publication he also added a final paragraph clarifying the reasons he was asked to work this way.

 

 

First photo: P050111PS-0210. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo: P050111PS-0918. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the East Room of the White House on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Third photo: Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency). 122x102cm. Copyright Simon Roberts.

Fourth photo: Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama Bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Copyright Reuters/Jason Reed.