Media Criticism

Obama's Rainbow of Everlasting Joy: The Year in Presidential Photography

Despite an ongoing media boycott of White House staff photography, the president's image crafters still call the shots.


Check out Behind the Lens: 2015 Year in Photographs, recently released by the Chief Official White House Photographer. Whether or not you're a fan of the current administration, it's an undeniably impressive collection of presidential imagery. It also happens to reveal a lot about how the administration wants to be seen.

The series purports to be nothing less than a highlight reel of the daily life of the most powerful politician on earth. Red carpets, Blue Angels, and a multicultural parade of celebrity cameos from Pope Francis to Shaquille O'Neal display all the romance and spectacle of presidential pageantry. In one widely published photo, a twilight-silhouetted POTUS stands atop the staircase of Air Force One; with a wave of his hand, he fires off a rainbow worthy of Nyan Cat toward the heavens above. Later on, we pull back the curtains of the Executive Residence to witness intimate moments of family warmth from a president who we mistakenly thought was aloof and emotionally distant.

It's a virtuoso performance by White House photographer Pete Souza and his staff. Once a photojournalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, Souza now uses his formidable talents to make things look exactly the way the president wishes they had been. In a year's worth of photographs, Obama doesn't betray a moment of doubt or hesitation. Not one shutter click is wasted criticizing or questioning anyone in the administration. In shot after shot, the commander-in-chief is humble enough to haul his own furniture, heroic enough to lead the free world into the future, yet human enough to be just folks.

But if journalism is no longer Souza's job, why does the media continue to republish the administration's rosy self-image as part of their regular news coverage? Even though 38 news organizations have signed a boycott of White House-generated imagery, The Most Trusted Name in News™ still crafts flattering photo stories of the president without attributing them to his own team of photographers. Other publications integrate the administration's photos into news stories as if they represented an independent point of view

In Reality Show President, Reason TV reveals how President Obama's photography staff bypasses the independent media through the skillful use of photography and social media. The media boycott has sent a powerful message to the public about the use of presidential PR in news reports. But make no mistake about it: when it comes to crafting the president's public image, the White House still calls the shots.