Propaganda or posterity? The photos the White House wanted you to see

Propaganda or posterity? The photos the White House wanted you to see
By Thomas Seymat
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White House official photographer Pete Souza has unveiled a photo album on Flickr entitled “Year in Photos 2013” in which he retraces in 109 photographs – some official, some intimate – his year as a privileged observer in the White House. Here are some of them, along with the captions from the Flickr album.

June 19, 2013 “The President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen to remarks by Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The last time I had been here was in 1987 on the opposite site of the Gate when President Reagan had challenged Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall.’” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

March 23, 2013 “I was on the second helicopter which landed minutes before Marine One, and then photographed the President’s helicopter as it descended into a landing zone outside of Petra, Jordan.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Jan.11, 2013 “President Obama walks with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on the White House Colonnade after their meeting in the Oval Office. Afghanistan continued to occupy a lot of the President’s time during 2013.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

April 3, 2013 “The President hugs Sue Connors and Jane Dougherty, right, following his remarks at the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colo. The women lost their sister, Mary Sherlach, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“Four Presidents. One funny story. Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama and Bush wait backstage to be introduced during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Dec. 5, 2013 “The President watches news coverage of the passing of Nelson Mandela, in the Outer Oval Office.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

April 11, 2013 “Chuck Kennedy photographed the First Lady as she takes a ‘selfie’ with Bo, the Obama family dog, for National Geographic.” (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Feb. 14, 2013 “The President genuinely enjoys being with kids. Here, he played a magnifying glass game with children during a visit to a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Soviet-style propaganda?

These technically perfect, flattering photographs are released a few weeks after a controversy involving Souza and the White House press corps, many of whom were upset by his privileged access as well as the free and direct distribution of his pictures.

On November 2013, 38 of the biggest news organisations in the United States sent a letter to White House Press Secretary James Carney to express their grievances. “Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the president while he is performing his official duties,” the letter said. “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government.”

News agency AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon phrased the dispute in harsher words: “The photos […] are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organisations find this unacceptable.

“Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?” he asks.

A Washington Post editorial went as far as accusing the White House of practices almost akin to Soviet propaganda.

“Is the Obama White House airbrushing history?” asks Dana Milbank in his column’s first sentence. He later mentions New York Times photographer Doug Mills who “likens the administration’s actions to Tass, the Soviet Union’s news agency.”

In a twist, Pete Souza chose to answer to the accusation not with words, but with his pictures.

Pres Obama signs a bill in the Oval Office as press photographers take photos

— petesouza (@petesouza) 22 Novembre 2013

On November 22 he published an unflattering picture of press photographers taking pictures as President Barack Obama signed what turned out to be the Streamlining Claims for Federal Contractor Employees Act, and the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustments Act of 2013, two mundane bills.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this picture did not make it in his review of the year.


Perhaps inspired by the controversy, Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant published side-by-side on a double page pictures of the American president and of North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un in similar poses The title of the article translates to “Propaganda-selfies to help,” Obama’s pictures are all Pete Souza’s.

Wat Obama en Kim Jong-Un gemeen hebben. Verhelderende fotocollage van Frank Schallmaier in Volkskrant vandaag.

— Hans Aarsman (@hansaarsman) 30 Décembre 2013

(photo credit: Flickr/Pete Souza under a U.S. Government Work licence)

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