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July 23, 2012

Obama in Aurora

Obama Aurora

If there are more descriptive and newsworthy photos of Obama’s condolence visit to Colorado today, I found this the most characteristic. As AP details:

In dramatic detail, Obama offered a glimpse inside the horror that took place in the Denver-area movie theater early Friday, relaying a story he said spoke to the courage of young Americans. With two fingers pressed to his own neck, Obama recalled how one woman saved the life of a friend who had been shot by keeping pressure on a vein that had “started spurting blood” and later helping carry her to safety.

(If you read the transcript of Obama’s speech today, you understand the rest of the picture also, how that same friend used her other hand to dial 911 on her cell.)

Not to jade the President’s role of comforter in a tragedy like this, but not to overlook the campaign resonance either, Obama’s gestures today dealt exclusively with the heart and the personal story as opposed to any policy issue or teachable moment. As Obama summed up after his encounter with the survivors:

“… it reminds you that even in the darkest of days, life continues, and people are strong and people bounce back and people are resilient.”

What makes the gesture more vivid is that it also symbolizes why America elected Obama four years ago. Hobbled by two wars, the recession and, most of all, the financial system in complete free fall, America turned to Obama to stop the bleeding. To the extent he has stabilized the patient, it’s like an emblem of his first term.

Maybe the left hand — beyond the cell phone — could be seen to have further symbolism also as it’s a gesture well familiar to Obama. Beyond “call me,” it’s also known as the “shaka” sign. It’s most familiar in Hawaii and communicates friendship, goodwill and common understanding. (One of its most publicized usages came when Obama threw the shaka sign to Honolulu’s Punahou School marching band during his Inauguration Parade.)

Obama is generally not so easy to read. He has a gift, though — and time of need and also campaign season tends to bring it out — in making people sense hope. As a politician approaching the home stretch of his last campaign, though, today’s visit felt like a mixed blessing (or too much shaka), bypassing lessons learned for pure symbolism.

(photo: Larry Downing/Reuters caption: U.S. President Barack Obama demonstrates a story of survival by placing his fingers over an artery and using a cell phone while speaking at the University of Colorado Hospital after he met with families bereaved after a gunman went on a shooting rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado July 22, 2012. Obama headed to Aurora, Colorado, on Sunday to meet families grieving their losses Friday’s mass shooting that has stunned the nation and rekindled debate about guns and violence in America.)

  • Scarabus

    I knew nothing about the “shaka” sign until following your link, Michael. (Thanks!) But what you point out raises many questions.

    Most of us understand a photo as both a unique composition and a single frame from a film, and I think that’s appropriate — as long as we don’t confuse the two. The person who chose the “frame” (or managed Cartier-Bresson-wise to catch it), and the editor who chose to publish it have deliberately presented us with a unique composition, iconography, etc. That merits the respect of close critical reading.

    At the same time…

    I teased you recently (with respect, as you recognized) about having mediated BNN readers/viewers’ encounter with some images by choosing which among them to present. The same is true of those who choose to offer us a single “frame” from a “film.” You provided us with a link allowing us to determine for ourselves the … meaning, not appropriateness! … of the choices you made. That was honorable plus professionally/intellectually honest. Good on ya!

    The same considerations apply here. Someone — probably several someones — chose that particular “frame” for us. What happened before and after? Was Obama caught in the midst of making the “call me” gesture? Or was he, in a moment of stress, either deliberately or inadvertently, making a spontaneous gesture he learned as a kid?

    It matters, I think.

    • Michael Shaw

      In this case (though perhaps I didn’t make it clear), Obama was intentionally using his left hand to indicate a cellphone.  Beyond that, I do appreciate your comments about Bag’s mediation, especially on this post where I’m highlighting an image out of the day’s stream that was not the one that got the most exposure.

  • Gasho

    I like it.  I see a moment between the past and the future. I see Obama, coming in just after a disaster, bringing it under control through visually stopping the bleeding.. within a reasonable time; and moving forward.. making the call and changing the future.

    May we see an Obama, that is not only willing to stop the bleeding, but bring about the optimistic future we originally elected him for. See how bright his face is? See the optimism there?  I know this is right after a tragedy, and it is a single image, Scarabus, it’s still hopeful in it’s tone. I have found myself out of options but to hold out the hope that the second term will bring Obama the freedom to really bring his vision to come to pass.  Think of what he could accomplish if it were his intention to do so.

    There are many things I’d like to see on Obama’s to do list..

  • jonst

    He looks to have come around–rather effortlessly, too–indeed, maybe “evolved”, to brotherly solidarity with the “rural” types, who “cling” to guns.  As is true of almost all (all?) of the Ruling Class…they need to be “called” alright….but not on the phone. I suspect that day is still a ways off…but perhaps closer than presently guessed at.

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