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May 23, 2009

Your Turn: Obama’s New Afghan Commander, Lady Liberty, Bucking Broncos (And Those Precious Bodily Fluids)

Obama McChrystal.jpg

I’m really fascinated by this single photo of Obama with new Afghan commander McChrystal (of black ops fame) in the Oval Office offered up by Pete Souza on the WH Flickr stream.

Maybe it’s the shrink in me, but looking at the photo — especially, having read this somewhat perverse NYT piece on McChrystal’s “asceticism” — gives me visions of Dr. Strangelove.

And then, I love that Souza 1.) places Lady Liberty between the President and the Commander, 2.) gives the same treatment to the cowboy on the wild steed, and 3.) orients Obama’s hand so he seems to be touching the pin with the wings (can anyone identify it?) while also covering up McChrystal’s name.

Any thoughts on what any of this means?

Related: 200905230945.jpg

(image: Pete Souza/White House. May 19, 2009. WH Flickr photostream)

  • Don

    The wings are British jump wings. Since he’s special ops, he’s probably worked the the British SAS commandos. Here’s a link:

  • Russ Nichols

    Military uniforms are so goddamn silly. Especially officer’s uniforms. And i say this as a former enlisted man in the U.S. Army. What normal person goes around decorated with his color-coded resume hanging on the front of his suit? The medals and such are even called “decorations.”

  • Paul Shambroom

    I question assigning intentionality on the photographer’s part to composition on this level. The post says “And then, I love that Souza 1.) places Lady Liberty between the President and the Commander,….” I worked in a past life as a photo-journalist. As I recall, photographers at the White House don’t “place” things in the oval office, and probably have little choice as to where they can even stand. His choice (if any) was probably whether or not to reposition himself so that the window appeared behind the pres, between the figures, or (as is the case) on the left of the frame. I would be surprised if the relationship between Obama’s hand and the medal was even noticed, let alone controlled. This sort of post-photo analysis can be an amusing exercise, but I’d be interested in hearing from this photographer (or other contributors to this site) about how many of these compositional relationships are intentional.
    I heard Lawrence Weschler (art historian, author of Everything Rises) speak recently, he’s big on the idea of convergences between seemingly unrelated images. THere is a contest inspired by his work on McSweeny’s site:
    It’s kind of the same thing, where intentionality (in Weschler’s examples, mostly subconscious) is assumed about compositional and subject elements in photographs that are WAY beyond the photographers control. I love BAGnewsnotes, don’t get me wrong, but I find that a lot of these sorts of posts betray a certain misunderstanding of the process of making straight photographs in the real world. Certainly, in politics the handlers try to manipulate the image and message, and good photographers try to circumvent that, but in the end sometimes you just get what you get. In many of those cases, post-action analysis is little more than a parlor game.

  • DennisQ

    I’ve been wondering what Obama sees in the Afghanistan campaign that the rest of us don’t see. He is surely aware of abandoning his leftwing supporters by escalating that war instead of scaling it back. Obama has also taken a number of other obnoxiously pro-military positions, like refusing to release the torture photographs that show the extent and intensity of these inhumane practices.
    Is it possible that these military guys have somehow gotten to Obama? I don’t believe that the threats are as real as right wingers make them out to be. So maybe Obama has a weakness for the kind of flattery that high generals know how to bestow – after all, it’s how they got their high rank. McChrystal is paying rapt attention to Obama, as if he is completely blown away by him. It’s almost as if the general is thinking to himself, “My God, to be in the presence of this man … it’s awesome.” Obama is doing the talking, and quite possibly he’s saying just what McChrystal came in specifically to get him to say.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    I appreciate your comment and agree that ascribing intentionality to (more random) compositional elements in the photo is unrealistic. In the past year, in fact, I’ve made a very concerted effort to move away from the practice and focus instead on specifically chosen backdrops and locales and/or more overt behavioral dynamics and/or overt visual media framing as a function of editorial narrative.
    I will say that, mostly because it’s Saturday, I did/do take intentional license to play some (parlor-like) games with the pictures and with the readership. It’s in that spirit that I invested Mr. Souza with such powers. Otherwise, I, too, couldn’t imagine him asking the President to move just a little to the left to get the Statue of Liberty “just so,” or to move up his hand so the General’s name tag is obscured (as if giving some special signal, for example, that Obama is going to offer cover to McChrystal when all those Special Ops shenanigans start going down).
    Overall though, I should also say that this practice of analyzing political imagery — especially at this pace — remains a highly subjective and imprecise endeavor with who-knows-how-many different strategies in play (whether I’m doing it, or Lucaites, or Hariman, or our Salon guests, or whoever) and I’m consistently thrilled and grateful that you, as well as BNN’s many insightful readers lend the eyes and intelligence so continually and consistently to grow and, yes, refine the process.

  • Paul Shambroom

    Thanks for your prompt and thoughtful reply, Michael. Honestly, I’m glad you and your contributors do this sort of analysis. I encourage my students to try read news photos this way too. I just thought it important to point out that these sorts of readings speak more about our attitudes as viewers than about what the photographer may or may not have intended, seen or manipulated.

  • whatever

    One sided contempt. Scary for all of us.

  • Withnail

    it’s simple:
    Iraq doesn’t have the bomb. PAKISTAN has the bomb. Iraq is just a country with a guy we didn’t like. We took him out and there was chaos behind those borders. But, for the most part, it stayed there.
    But If Pakistan goes down? That’s freakin’ scary.

  • Nigel Lendon

    Agreed. The “shrink” in you is getting out of control. The environment in which Pete Souza is operating is wildly over-determined, symbolically. You’re allowing the context to cause you to lose control of your analysis of signifiers. Sleep on it…

  • Stewart Dean

    General Ripper, Sir….uh…did you take your meds this morning…this week?

  • yg

    He is surely aware of abandoning his leftwing supporters by escalating that war instead of scaling it back.
    i don’t know what the surprise is all about. this is what obama said he would do during the campaign.
    mcchrystal’s expression looks contemptous to me.

  • yg

    sy hersh once talked about an israeli special forces unit who are in country, who keep an eye on pakistan’s arsenal. i’m sure we have people doing the same as well.

  • yg

    what’s the bodily fluids reference?

  • yg – click for link

    found it, from 2001:
    The crisis may bring into play the élite unit, operating under Pentagon control with C.I.A. assistance, whose mission it is to destroy nuclear facilities, past and present government officials told me. “They’re good,” one American said. “If they screw up, they die. They’ve had good success in proving the negative”—that is, in determining that suspected facilities were not nuclear-related.
    The American team is apparently getting help from Israel’s most successful special-operations unit, the storied Sayeret Matkal, also known as Unit 262, a deep-penetration unit that has been involved in assassinations, the theft of foreign signals-intelligence materials, and the theft and destruction of foreign nuclear weaponry.

  • yg
  • Marie

    McChrystal’s expression is the most intriguing part of this image, to me. Is that habitual? Or situational? Or a little of both? I don’t know the man, but he looks very tightly wired. Maybe it’s the lighting.

  • Russ Nichols

    Bodily fluids.
    Go rent Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Stanley Kubrick 1964

  • moebius

    It seems disingenuous to say that the photographers lack of control over the composition means the image has little significance. Sometimes you have control, and sometimes you just get lucky. Intentionality frames each of countless pictures taken of each event, and intentionality is also present in the later selection of the image that best captures the event. Intentionality enters into any cropping or photoshopping. And, if it is published commercially, intentionality enters again with the context and presentation given to the image.
    I’m not saying anything new here, in a media saturated culture everybody basically understands that that is how it works. So why can’t we reverse-engineer the final message?

  • Rightwingsnarkle

    I’ve wondered about over-analysis at times as well, though I think that’s tempered by understanding the role of the photo editor as well as of the photographer.
    A photographer takes lots of shots that don’t make it into print/web. Selecting those shots that do make it, whether by a separate editor or by the photographer acting as editor, is a very intentional act.
    Hope to see you again in Pittsburgh.

  • Julia Grey

    I think the intentionality comes in with the CHOICE from a number of similar photographs. And that choice can incorporate many of the elements Paul is noticing.
    mcchrystal’s expression looks contemptous to me.
    Me, too. Controlled behind a deeply-felt soldierly duty to defer to civilian authority, but it’s there. There’s almost a sneer in his nose and mouth.
    Funny how some people see admiration instead. But again, it’s just a moment.

  • Hoyt Clagwell

    I don’t see anything like contempt. I see the expression of someone who’s very eagerly waiting for the other party to finish speaking so he can interject with a point he feels is important. I see him holding his breath, waiting to use the exhale to speak. His eyes are intently on Obama–he’s very much engaged in communication here.
    Also, I find him oddly attractive.

  • Joe Blow

    “mcchrystal’s expression looks contemptous to me.”
    He looks like “WTF!!??” . some ideas in his head:
    “I can’t believe I am working for an N-word.”
    “God_damn he has nice skin…”
    “Why is this person talking instead of listening to me?”
    “This is going to be a shitty job. I wonder how long I have until I get kicked out…?”

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