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December 18, 2008

Obama: The Smoky Years


If this picture had been released during the campaign, it would certainly have been appropriated for “gotcha” purposes. That explains why former Occidental College classmate Lisa Jack had these photos of Obama locked up in a safe deposit box till now.

If the images serve a purpose going forward — beyond confirming the early and long-standing nature of Obama’s cool, jaunty side — I would hope this one does have some traction.

Obama, if somewhat reluctantly, has spoken up recently about his battle with nicotine. To the extent that the man has been over-idealized, part of the post-election process in building a more pragmatic relationship with Obama involves realizing the man — like all of us — has and feels his stresses; has both constructive and not-so-constructive releases for them; and, yes, does have his demons.

If not a necessary item for disclosure, I should mention I graduated from Occidental the year before Obama arrived. What gives me a bit of satisfaction is knowing we were involved in many of the same activist activities, especially a concerted anti-apartheid push which saw the school ultimately divest all monies from funds doing business in South Africa. (It did take an occupation of the President’s office along the way.) I didn’t know Lisa Jack, but Oxy is and was a pretty small school and the fact Jack, an upperclasswoman, chose Obama to photograph doesn’t necessarily mean he stood out in any particular way.

As usual, I’m interested where this photo leads you.

See the whole series: Obama: The College Years (TIME)

(image Lisa Jack, Eagle Rock, CA., 1980)

  • David

    I think it highlights Obama’s willingness to wear many different hats and efforts to try to understand as many people as possible (the cool cats, the drug enthusiasts, sauve jocks, etc.). His desperate struggle to find his identity only undersocres how important these exercises were. However, since we are confident that he was ultimately triumphant in his struggle (as much as any man could hope to be) it’s comforting to know that he really tries to understand how others think and how he can work with them, even if he’s not one of them.
    It’s certainly a provocative photo (and I commend you for posting it now) because it forces the audience to look at Obama as a (flawed) man instead of a savior. I hope that it encourages people to look within themselves and see how they can work with others to contribute to the reinvention and reinvigoration of this country. After all, that’s what his candidacy was all about.

  • Michael

    well, I’m not so sure he looks flawed in this picture. He looks like a college student. Going to some trouble to look cool. Is that flawed? Nah. It’s just being young. Not really news, or not if you’ve spent much time hanging out with college students. (Could be made into news, though, so no wonder she kept them in a safe deposit box.)
    Signed, a somewhat old codger

  • Alan Chin

    Of course these photos would be unremarkable if they weren’t of someone about to become President. He’s a college student, having a bit of fun posing for the camera, smoking a cigarette held like a joint. The interesting thing is, he described all this in his autobiography “Dreams From My Father,” his adolescent struggles, his smoking, drinking, and occasional drug use. Nothing that is shown here wasn’t already revealed in print. But it had not been SEEN. The photos that were published during the campaign were mostly of him with his family, the kind of snapshots that every family makes and keeps. These photos, however, show him in the context of being a young adult, on his own, in his social millieu of Occidental College and…and the photographer felt that if they had been published while the election was still in balance, that these images might have become contentious somehow. I see her point…can you imagine, “Obama romanticized drug use” or “Obama palling around as a pothead.” Frankly, I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. But the fact that the concern existed shows the potency of a photograph, as opposed to mere statements, however confessional and authoritative, on the printed page.

  • Victor F

    Looks like Obama’s doing his Bogart impression.

  • cherish

    I am rather charmed by his zits.

  • Oscar

    It says something good about Obama that she held on to this. It strikes me that Ms. Jack has a political conscience, or, if she knew him, some personal loyalty. Think how many millions the repubs would have paid. . . I’m sure it’s worth much less now.

  • Tanya

    I think the normalness that comes out in these pictures…is very very refreshing.

  • acm

    it also makes one think of the recurrent questions about what price Today’s Youth will pay for their ubiquitous online photographic record — only the most uptight candidates will be without some collection of embarrassing drunken party photos, e.g. here one person could do something with a safety deposit box to keep the discussion in the present, but once everything is archived in Google, there’s no going back…

  • lyr’cist

    “OJohnny I hardly Kenn’d Ye…”

  • Stella

    Sweet & wonderful photos – thanks. It’s good to be reminded that for all of us, maturity is a work in progress.

  • margaret

    Is it really he? I wouldn’t have recognized him.
    Someone took a picture of me holding a cigar when I was in grad school, and I’ve never smoked anything in my entire life! It was all a joke.

  • indybend

    I love the whole sweet series of photos. I think it shows his ordinariness, which he and Michelle tried to convey throughout the whole campaign (e.g. prior to the success of his books, they were still paying off student loans.) And the series gives the lie to the right wing line that he is somehow an unknown with a mysterious past. It’s obvious that, at least socially, he was pretty much like other college students of his time.

  • mommybrain

    It sure looks more like toking than smoking. I’m glad Lisa kept it out of public view. But he has a charm and insouciance that is quite fetching (even then, he looked like NoDrama Obama). I would have liked him.

  • ancestor

    If someone had labelled these pictures, at the time, “future president”, his friends would have had a laugh. He is unrecognizable because he looks dopey and even unintelligent. In his autobiography he alluded to taking drugs — but he was very careful not to describe the experience. At all. These pictures do describe it. They don’t inspire confidence.

  • Cactus

    Cool! Hope he still has that hat.
    Alan said something significant in drawing the line between words and pictures, politically speaking. Without these photos as ‘evidence,’ the talking-head commentators have no visuals to hang their hat on, so to speak. Therefore, a story becomes a non-story. Given the fuss they made of the “terrorist fist-bump,” can you imagine the hoohah they would have made of this? Is he smoking a joint or not? Does that look like marijuana to you? Ad nauseam.
    Many an unreported story lacks only the visual. If reported in print press, readership is much smaller and newspaper readers are declining every year. Plus it is not repeated every 24/7 cycle.

  • sohbet

    others to contribute to the reinvention and reinvigoration of this country

  • EWilcox

    These photos are awesome. Lisa Jack did a great job. I found this place to buy Obama Keepsakes with Lisa Jack’s photos. Awesome!

  • alvaro

    I find obama wearing a balance bracelet more interesting then the cigarette. just look at his age who give a S#$% if he’s smoking a cigarette looking all cool at the age of 19, but him wearing a bracelet that shows he’s into alternative medicines or good luck charms much more interesting IMO.

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