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June 16, 2010

Your Turn: BP at the White House

Pete Souza/White House
Pete Souza/White House

I’m interested in how you deconstruct this single photo (players, location, body language, etc.) that the White House released of Obama’s meeting/showdown with honcho, Tony Hayward, and other BP executives. (Click for full size.)

I’ll be joining in the discussion thread, then posting a summary here in a day or so as an update.

(caption: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with BP executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, June 16, 2010, to discuss the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Pictured, from left, are BP CEO Tony Hayward, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP General Counsel Rupert Bondy, BP Managing Director Robert Dudley, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.)

  • peter Hollander

    It fits in with the whole militarize the operation meme going around with the painting on the wall behind them of the US Calvary riding in. The real question is who is the Calvary in this scenario?

  • Michael Shaw

    Yes, look at how the light picks up the blue sky just behind TR. There’s hope!

  • Thirdeye Pushpin

    Time is of the essence and the rough rider is coming in…note how the obama admin teams cards are at a diagonal and valerie jarrett is looping around to the other side ( to cut off the exit to the door ) Roped ‘em on in just like TR on the horse. But the Bulls of BP don’t look like they are moving much.

  • Thirdeye Pushpin

    another thing I overlooked is the diversity discrepancy between the admin and BP….no color or gender mix on their side. Is this why they don’t look like they feel to have been reprimanded.

  • pragmatic realist

    It looks like a confused inarticulate mess to me.

    My eye goes straight to the woman in the center (Labor Secretary Solis), the smallest person at the table who looks so sad and hopeless I feel terribly depressed. BP CEO Hayward is hidden in the shadows.Carl-Henric Svanberg is the strongest form at the table staring at the President with his jaw clenched in inarticulate anger.

    Nothing good is going to come of this meeting. TR looks down on them all with mocking disdain.

  • bystander

    Well, I don’t see a 1,000 mile stare in the BP folk, so they’re all engaged … and I would argue they are more than politely engaged. They appear composed but very attentive to whatever Obama is saying.

    Not a single woman in red, black, or navy blue. Napolitano chose the brightest of the colors, but it’s nonthreatening. All three women are engaged, as well.

    Now, Biden. He looks like he’s got some internal dialog going on. And, Holder looks like he’s holding himself arm’s length, too. Kind of makes me wonder what Obama is saying… did he just issue some kind of threat? Holder and Biden look like those second in command guys when the CEO has just announced to HR that he’s laying off 20% of the work force. It’s unfortunate, but …

    Obama looks like he has a muted version of that finger pointing thing going on. It’s interesting to me that the finger seems to be pointing in the opposite direction from where he’s looking. Is there a mixed-message in here?

    The two expressions I keep returning to are those of Rupert Bondy and Hilda Solis. Something in the eyes… and, the head tilt which has them looking at Obama, but not directly at him… the tilt of the head echoed in Robert Dudley, but I tend to want to chalk that up to camera angle.

    Whatever message Obama has delivered, I’m guessing it’s either a painful or threatening one. But, I’m also guessing he’s left himself a “backdoor.”

  • Megan

    I know! Color! And women! Women wearing color!

    I’ve never been in an all-male meeting (obviously). I wonder if it feels different to the all white, all male BP executives to have different people present.

    Mr. Bondy, as appropriate for counsel perhaps, looks very wary.

    Pres. Obama looks very professorial, explaining with a hand gesture How It Is Going To Be. Still, in this frame, he’s sneaking a glance out at us. Is he checking on our understanding? Or making sure that we’ve seen this performance.

    He is, at the very least, alpha. People have not unconsciously squared their shoulders to some other power source in the room. That’s nice, after all those shots of former Pres. Bush being out-alpha’d by almost anyone.

  • lq

    Mr. Hayward is pretty tightly wound, hands clasped in front of his mouth (you can almost see the white knuckles); Chairman Svanberg looks like he’s like to explode, but he’s taking it, the two other BP guys look totally intent and engaged in what in the hell this means for them and their company – and the Chairman’s reaction later in private.
    The Administration is interesting. Obama is calmly laying out the issues and what we (the US) want BP to do; they certainly look more relaxed than anyone on the BP side. I think this is the come to Jesus moment for BP when they realize that Tony Hayward’s bluff and strut just didn’t do it, and they are really going to have to pay a cost, step up to the plate (oh, too many metaphors, sorry).
    For me, it’s always looking at the personal reactions back and forth – body language. I’m not so big on what’s hanging on wall, although I know these bits inform us as viewers, and I don’t know how to gauge the influence a work of art on the wall in the room would have on participants of such an intense meeting.

  • robert e

    The portrait of T. Roosevelt dominates the scene, one of our most progressive and activist Presidents, and perhaps the most hostile to big business, including big oil, and whose greatest legacy may have been to put the Federal government in the role of steward of America’s natural environment and resources. One can’t help asking what he would have done in this situation.

    I have to wonder if it’s coincidence that the meeting was held in this room, and if it isn’t, whether the choice signifies more than the psychological gambit. If you’re BP and aware of the history, there may be no more depressing place in the world to have this meeting. If you’re the administration, the room might work as a source of hope or resolve, or of rebuke.

    No one looks happy, that’s for sure. There’s anger, but it’s of a diffuse and resigned sort. The word “stony” comes to mind. Everyone knows there are no winners present, and are perhaps turned inward more concerned with how to cut losses. All except Obama, whose expression has something else. He seems to be the only one seeing beyond the table and the immediate crisis, for better or worse.

    • rich sodergren

      nice catch… i wonder if the room was pick intentionally…..

      i hate to think what teddy would have said to them…

  • Michael Shaw

    Interesting to compare this pic to the shot last December — same room, Prez in same spot — of Obama’s meeting/supposed showdown with bank CEOs. (That’s the meeting where Blankfein, Mack and Parsons didn’t even bother to show up.) I appreciate the “shoulders squared” comment. Obama is in utter command of this gathering.

  • NJCher

    Hayward’s hand clasp is twisted–contorted, even– and it’s over his mouth. He’s trying mightily to keep from uttering any more whoppers.

    Hayward’s head is down while all the others on that side of the table are up or only slightly downward cast. He is not meeting the president’s eye, probably because he has no intention of leveling with him.

    Svanberg’s hands are visible, and on the table. He is in total contrast to Hayward. Svanberg is looking directly at the president. I would say Svanberg has more honest intentions with the communication than Hayward.

    Hayward’s body language displays such dishonesty that I would almost expect him to be uttering, “Heh, heh, heh” under his breath.

    Obama is not gesturing with his finger. He is illustrating. Example: “Maybe you guys thought you were going to get by with $10 billion” (make thumb and forefinger a quarter of an inch apart.

    Obama’s face displays a slight bit of contempt. Look at the way the brows are down, yet just raised a tad, as in “Realllly?” There is also the the directional cast of the eyes, which he is looking at through half-lids. This can mean discernment, as in he is trying to size them up.

  • Nina

    The picture telegraphs a message that Obama has something important to say and worth hearing. In that way it’s a typical PR picture for him. That it’s shot in shallow focus so that Jarrett and Solis and most everyone except for Obama are in soft focus, adds to his authoritative role. Is it persuasive in its intent …..that’s another question. For me, it doesn’t do the trick. The subtle hand gesture is like an academic gently explaining some fine detail, rather than what we need — a president who can take charge over a corporation who does not have the best interests of the American people or the Gulf of Mexico at heart. The more I see Obama in this crisis, the less faith I have in him.

    • Molly

      My reaction is the opposite. I am glad I have an “academic” (read: thoughtful) president in office now. Could you imagine the horror show if the former cowboy in chief were still there?

      I am relieved that Obama considers options even if it means his action seems muted or non-existent. I trust that he is doing what is possible under the gutted guide lines of federal action vs. corporate interests that former administrations have given him.

  • thomas

    Note-taking is sign of subservience. Always keep your hands in view and clasped, eyes on the speaker. This way you appear to be patiently and civilly yielding to an equal while awaiting your turn to speak.

    And I like how Obama’s gesture describes articulating some difficult and very abstractly precise point. “Gentlemen, an unstoppable underwater volcano is vomiting a kabillion gallons of toxic blarch into the world every ten minutes, but I’d like to coax this meeting along some very measured gestures. Like this. And this. Now, I’m not a big fan of hors d’ oeuvres, but there’s no fighting custom and there’s nothing like toasted cheese finger sandwiches, wouldn’t you agree?”

  • lytom

    The spill is more in command than Obama. The situation is out of control, we just don’t know the full extent of it yet. The only thing Obama can count on is eventually media getting tired of the spill, now that damage has been quantified. Damage is hugely underestimated.
    The consequences are bad for all in the room, the spill has tainted them all and they look immobilized.
    The BP side is looking at the Obama group, while they have eyes shifting anywhere but forward. That is not good for Obama.

  • robert e

    Coming back to this, I’m seeing the photograph much more abstractly. The photo flatters the speaker more than others present, but in compositional terms he is marginalized–squeezed into an outer quarter of the frame. The most commanding visual element is instead the totemic arrangement of portrait, mantle clock, woman, and name cards that divide the picture at the golden ratio.

    The clock, while in a powerful position, is subordinated by the larger element above it, as if a punction mark, and flanked by two ominously dark doors, all of this disconcertingly out of focus. The woman framed in a dark hearth at the center of the picture only echoes rather than anchors the ominous composition, while our eyes are drawn downward and out the bottom of the frame by the rhythmic sequence of name cards…

    Tick, tick, tick…

    rich, thanks for the nod. I’d like to think TR would have decisively and emphatically kicked some butts.

    • Ken Krayeske

      A namecard for Obama? huh?

      Here assembled are some of the most powerful, conniving people in the world, who certainly rose to power knowing their Dale Carnegie. Both sides surely had pre-meeting briefings on who is who, probably with photos and bios.

      It’s not like anyone on the BP side is unaware of Holder, Solis or Napolitano. And surely, team Obama knows Hayward from Svanberg. If Holder was doing his job, he’d have presented the indictments to Hayward right then and there.

      So why would team Obama, the host, lay out such cards? Is it like names on the back of jerseys, for the press and audience? Or is it protocol. But somehow, I don’t see David Cameron or Sarkozy needing name tags, so why place them for a corporation that has a GDP larger than most countries in the world?

      It seems so out of place as to be phony.

  • Michael Shaw

    After reading Robert’s comment, it is interesting how much the geometry — allowing ones eye to track down the center of the table, and also dropping down from TR and the clock — puts sad Hilda Solis (who is at the head of the table) at the center of the image.

    Appreciating that vantage, we get a much better sense of the tension in the photo (as well as the irony of the situation overall). Reading left-to-right (or right-to-left), we witness presidential action. That’s in contrast (or conflict), however, with the ideal of the “take action” leader (TR) + time ticking away (as the well continues to gush) + the overall tone of sadness in the body of a female, and the top official in charge of human labor.

  • Michael Shaw

    Interesting nobody has mentioned Eric Holder’s presence, the AG representing Obama’s enforcer/legal muscle.

    What do you make of Holder’s body language, the elbows on the table with hands raised, and the fact Hayward echoes the gesture (+ vice-versa)?

  • Nina

    Is Holder asleep? Eyes closed?

  • Kit (Keep It Trill)

    Tony Hayden looks guilty and full of regret to me. Eric Holder looks like the prosecuting attorney is his, which puts Hayden in a very bad spot (theoretically).

    I like what Robert said. I’ll add that in a purely abstract sense, the women bear and raise children that continue humanity. The 1989 Exxon oil spill left a pod of whales unable to reproduce. Toxic rains on our agriculture and us from hurricanes could theoretically do this to us. The clock is ticking on us…

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