President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President’s haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
As Barrack Obama is undergoing a ‘shellacking’ in the midterm elections this fall, I want to look at his legacy of photographic representation. There are hundreds of photographs, many of them taken by the official White House photographer Pete Souza, that have become symbolic for the optimism with which Obama was voted into power in 2008. Since then, the Obama administration has long fostered the power of photographic representation. The White House has even installed their very own Flickr account in which the best of Souza’s photographs are made available to the public free of any copyright restrictions. The moments captured are to a large extent so-called photo ops – those are carefully stage-managed moments provided to press photographers in order to support an ideological agenda. It was a similar type of photo op that took place in the White House on the 8th of May 2009: White House staff were invited to bring along their families to meet the president in person. The omnipresent Pete Souza was in the Oval Office, snapping away, while the family members took advantage of such a rare opportunity. And then, something unexpected was about to happen as a young boy asks Obama if he can touch his haircut to see if it feels like his own. Obama laughs, leans forward, bowing to a 90 degree angle, so that the young boy can touch his hair. For a press photographer, this is like gold dust falling into the lap. The official and often tedious photo op reveals a far more interresting and unexpected photo op within its own right. The photograph itself reveals that this moment has likely caught Pete Souza by surprise as well: unlike most of Souza’s work, this photograph is more clumsy, the composition slightly awkward as Obama’s face could only be captured at an angle, the shape of his body is not as accentuated as it could be, the family members expression has not been captured either. In other words, the compositional flaws in the photograph themselves signify the realism of this unexpected moment.
Children and presidents make for iconic photographs. In the Oval Office specifically, John F. Kennedy already ventured on this territory with a photograph of him working on the famous oak desk, while his son is hiding underneath. The photograph portrayed Kennedy as a family man, in touch with his children, and, by extension, in touch with the Amercian people. At the same time, Kennedy does not appear to be overly distracted by his son. This too is an important aspect in the photograph since Kennedy seems, despite his smile, unfazed about what is going around him. He is not distracted by his son, nor is he distracted by the photographer. The symbolism of this determination is particularely useful in light of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy had to potray himself as a man who would never be distracted, though at the same time, also a man with a conscious.
Pete Souza’s photograph of Sasha Obama sneaking up on Obama behind a couch in the Oval Office has similar, largely positive, connotations. As a respected lecturer on photojournalism, it is likely that Souza himself knew of the symbolic power of the JFK photograph when he took this shot. The photograph of the young boy touching Obama’s head similarly portrays the president as a family man, despite the child not being his own. The broad smile on Obama’s face also signifies his humourous side, that he also allows himself not be taken too seriously. Here is the president of the United States bending over for a small boy so that he can touch his head. Everyone in that room that day saw the funny side in this moment.
On closer reading however, there are fundamental reasons that separate the photograph of the young boy and Obama from all others. As Obama is bending over for the boy, the viewer reads this as a reversal of roles. The boy stands tall with a straight expression like an adult, while it is Obama that is overcome by a childlike chuckle. The adult’s typical patting on a child’s head is also reversed – here it is the child that is patting the adult’s head. It’s as if the boy praises Obama, similar to the Queen knighting a distinguished citizen. This reading is also underlined by the position of the subjects in the frame. While Obama stands near the centre of the room, the boy, the visitor after all, stands in front of the famous oak desk as if its his own. He is wearing a shirt and a tie, as if his jacket is hanging on the chair behind the deask. In the photograph, the boy becomes the president and Obama the visitor, chuckling like a child and slightly embarressed with his hands in his pockets. This is not to say that this photograph, potentially embarressing for the president, ruptures an ideological agenda disseminated in the photo op. Quite the opposite. The overriding signifcation here is that this boy, if he studies and works hard, can, like Obama, become president. It is the quintessential American Dream that this photograph seeks to capture. This signification is even further underlined with reference to Obama’s own background, that he too was once a young boy, and more importantly, a young black boy, with big dreams.
And this is maybe the most important aspect in the photograph that also radically separates it from any other Child+President+Oval Office=Photo op equation attempted in the past. The photograph is about race and ethnicity. Let me quote from the official caption: “The youngster wanted to see if the President’s haircut felt like his own.” The black and curly hair of the boy and the President alike are signifiers of their race. In other words, the young wants to feel, as if seeing is not sufficient, if the president is as black as he is himself. The boy was likely not that aware of the underlining racial interpretation his inquiry could reveal. However, and this is important, those that provided the official caption were most likely aware of the significance of the boys’ reference to to the President’s haircut. The caption dramatically affects the reading of the image: it means that boys like him, in spite of a discourse that seeks to separate races by the appearance of hair, can one day bow to the next generation of potential presidents.
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