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March 10, 2014

Methinks the White House Doth (Visually) Protest Too Much

Obama phone Putin

I find it interesting how politicized and message-focused the job of White House photographer seems to have become. In interview after interview in Obama’s first term, official photographer and Director of the White House Photography Office, Pete Souza, insisted that his job was to create photographs of the President that would last for the next 50 to 100, to up to 500 years. (That’s in response to petty name calling that is likely good for about one news cycle.)

Specifically, were referencing a back-and-forth from a week ago. The catalyst was the photo above of the President on the phone with President Putin taken by Souza on March 1st and posted to the White House Flickr site. What happened was, after news site @Storyful noted the photo in a tweet, it was replied to by Geoffrey Zakarian, the (apparently right wing) celebrity chef (93k followers) who has a show on the Food Network. (The tweet has been since deleted.)

Zakarian Souza

Close on the heels of that (timestamped 16 minutes later than the chef’s tweet, at 5:23), we got this tweet-rebuttal from Mr. Souza referencing his tenure as Reagan’s official photographer:

Souza tweet Reagan informal

In a podcast on March 24, 2012 with PoliOptics, the DC politics show on XM Radio , Adam Belmar asked Souza about visual messaging and why the Obama administration, in his opinion, was doing an inferior job of providing more interesting backdrops to the photo press for public events. Pete’s answer (at 50:54 of the interview):

You know, I don’t really think about (messaging). That’s not my job. My job is to document what is happening in front of me. I’m not the communications guy or the message guy. And I hadn’t really thought that much about it until you just brought it up.

It’s hard to tell how much Pete has been drawn into the political fray and the daily messaging because 1) things at the White House haven’t been going that well, 2) social media isn’t a zero-sum game and the White House’s constant publishing (1, 2) – let’s not call it messaging, just informing — has caused them to become oversensitive (or 93k followers sensitive) in this all-too-often sharp elbowed environment, or 3) Pete’s been more mindful of politics and messaging than he’s been aware of.

(update 1: post edited to reflect Twitter time stamps as the basis for determining length of time between the Zakarian and Souza tweets. )

(update 2: post modified to more accurately reflect context of Adam Belmar’s question.)

(photo: Pete Souza/White House: caption: President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine, March 1, 2014.)

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