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Inside view of White House online is not what it seems, says professor

Cara Finnegan
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Cara Finnegan, a communication professor at the University of Illinois who studies the political and persuasive uses of photography, has been studying the White House Flickr site.

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3/4/2010 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The photos have the feeling of intimacy, of behind the scenes at the White House – and you found them where you found pictures of your new nephew and of your aunt’s trip to Texas.

link to video of Cara Finnegan commenting on White House photos
President Obama meeting with CEOs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. | Photo by Pete Souza | View video of more images with commentary

Welcome to the White House photostream on Flickr, about 2,000 images – and growing.

But don’t let this “seemingly transparent” access to the president fool you, cautions Cara Finnegan, a communication professor at the University of Illinois who studies the political and persuasive uses of photography, and who has been studying the White House Flickr site.

The Obama White House’s new-media photo archive is just the latest wrinkle in an old practice of image management and political communication, Finnegan says.

“It’s not a reality show,” not “an unvarnished documentary view,” she said. “The assumption can be that because it appears to be behind the scenes that we’re somehow really getting a glimpse into something behind the scenes. I think we need to keep in mind that these are pictures that were shot with intention, put online with intention.”

White House photographers have been employed for decades, but most of their images have waited for use in presidential libraries or museums, or in books of history, Finnegan said.

“The impulse to record the presidency visually is not new,” she said, “but what’s new is the way the Obama administration is using it now.”

Images shared on Flickr, often within days after events, serve not only their traditional role for the historical record but also serve to communicate a politically desirable image or message, Finnegan said. What’s more, the White House doesn’t have to rely on distribution only through the traditional news media – though there are many cases of the news media using them, which Finnegan thinks is often a “blurring of boundaries.”

The images also are shared in a “seemingly everyday, kind of equal space” with regular citizens, which communicates a feeling of intimacy, she said. It’s the same space used by many to share family photos of birthdays and grandkids – though Finnegan noted that the Obamas post few photos of their children or private family life, with the possible exception of their dog Bo.

The disadvantage for the White House is that these shared images are government work that cannot be copyrighted, and therefore can be used in ways the White House cannot control, despite language in each caption implying otherwise, Finnegan said. Bloggers, for instance, have altered photos and posted them with humorous or derogatory captions, she said.

Finnegan makes use of the White House photostream, linked from the White House homepage, in a course called “Visual Politics.” She thinks the Flickr site is a good way to show “how political leaders visually construct themselves for the public.”

But she’s also done specific study on 90 images, less than 5 percent of the total, that relate President Barack Obama in some way with art in the White House, most of it paintings or sculptures of past presidents or other historic figures.

She plans to present her research at a conference titled “Rhetoric, Politics and the Obama Phenomenon,” scheduled for March 4-7 at Texas A&M University.

In many of the 90 photos, collected by Finnegan here, the historic figures are in the background, looming over meetings.

Paintings of Lincoln and Washington are prominent in photos of Oval Office meetings. Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, the latter on horseback, are there in the background of conference meetings – Obama even appearing to gesture toward FDR during an early budget meeting. Benjamin Franklin is there as the president meets with a few congressmen and senators, and busts of Lincoln and Jefferson appear in a photo of Obama walking alone through a White House doorway.

Many of these images work to “authorize Obama as president” and also draw on the idea of the “mythic presidency,” associating Obama with past presidents seen as mythic or larger than life, Finnegan said. “By depicting Obama in the environment where all these mythic presidents held sway, Obama becomes absorbed into that same narrative,” she said.

It’s not unlike what court painters attempted to do in their depictions of kings and queens hundreds of years ago, Finnegan said. It’s also not unlike the images that other presidents or their staffs have encouraged, she said. (Pete Souza, Obama’s chief White House photographer, served in the same role during the second Reagan administration.)

In other photos, however, Finnegan said she sees an attempt to communicate other messages, some of them at odds with the “mythic presidency.”

Several photos show Obama contemplating paintings of past presidents. Another shows Obama during a meeting, his face in his hands and looking tired, with Vice President Joe Biden and a bust of Martin Luther King in the background.

In another photo, Obama is seen with a small group of African-Americans in the Oval Office on Martin Luther King Day, gesturing toward a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, hung that day over a bust of King.

“These images seem to invite the viewer to think about the history of the presidency,” Finnegan said, in some cases relative to Obama’s role as the first black president, in some cases suggesting how presidents have to struggle to get things done. Rather than associate him with past presidents, “they seem to somehow separate him from these mythic figures,” she said.

Editor's note: To contact Cara Finnegan, call 217-333-1855 or 217-369-8699 (cell); e-mail caraf@illinois.edu.

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