documentary photography

Pete Souza & Photographic Resistance

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following ex-White House photographer Pete Souza’s Instagram and seeing his almost daily posting of photos taken during Barrack Obama’s eight year presidency, often reflecting in them differences between the current and former administration. These are equally biting, critical, melancholic. They serve as an authoritative primary document – a way of reminding us of certain aspects of history in a climate where it is becoming frighteningly easy to bury and deny even things that happened yesterday.

As well as the moral and ethical implications these reminders have, it’s also really interesting from a photography perspective. A lot of the photographs Souza is posting are photographs he has posted before; he is reposting them to highlight a point, to serve a purpose. When these were taken, it is highly likely that the original intent was not the point he is making now. Documentary photography especially is meant to embody and encompass the world we live in at a particular time. We bring to it our knowledge of what is currently happening, as well as what has happened.

However, when Souza is posting these photographs – often tagging them and captioning them with pointed descriptions – they have an entirely different message to perhaps the original one intended.

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Souza was a prolific photographer – Obama wasn’t the only President he photographed – and during Obama’s administration he was with him almost every day, shooting thousands and thousands of photographs. During the beginning of Trump’s administration, he was actually going through his catalogue to pick out photos for a book he is releasing. So it was obvious that as certain things were happening, mirroring or sharply contradicting what had happened before, he would post or repost things he had seen as a form of social commentary. His captions were never outright hostile; they didn’t need to be. The photos said everything better and more succinctly than even the fiercest critic could.

For example, there has been growing criticism over the Trump administration’s responses to deadly hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Houston. Trump was accused at worst of negligence, and at best of using the size and scope of the destruction as a political and egotistical measuring tool. During all of this, Souza would post photos of the various relief efforts conducted during similar disasters during Obama’s campaign, as well as photographs highlighting the former President’s natural empathetic and selfless nature.

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During the aftermath of Charlottesville, Obama tweeted a photograph that Souza had taken of him alongside a Nelson Mandela quote, which became the most liked and fourth most retweeted tweet in Twitter history, showing not only how powerful and potent Souza’s photography coupled with Mandela’s words were, but also how desperate the world was to feel some sense of humanity and empathy.

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It has gotten to a point now where people are beginning to expect some form of photographic social commentary from Souza. There’s even memes about it, which he seems to find amusing. But in the comments there is also a sadness, a longing to go back to a time before. The comments are always a mixture of joy and pain, a reflection of what a country once had and a critical examination of what it has become.

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I can’t speak as to Pete Souza’s original intent in his “commentary” – he has started doing a book tour where he speaks about his experiences and he apparently feigns ignorance at his “shade” and insists he is only posting his work. But you have to think that for someone who was so intimately in the shadow of a great man such as Barack Obama, it would be increasingly frustrating to see the good works and the good intent being torn down daily, and worse yet, rewritten to suit a different narrative. To be able to post a photograph that says, “No, this is how it happened,” would be a powerful act of rebellion and resistance.

Words are becoming increasingly twisted and manipulated and denied and distorted. Photographs can change context, but what they show in them at their core rarely lies.

The Tank Man and Ieshia

You know those essays that you had to write on different books in high school? Or if you studied literature or poetry at Uni? Or music theory? Or art theory? Sometimes it can be tiring to break down art and into its smallest parts and analyse the different layers. There’s a danger that it can leave the book / play / artwork / poem / song lyric / photograph as something dry that no longer feels the same as before.

I wanted to look at why I felt certain reactions towards certain photos, but I didn’t want the above to happen. So I’m going to steer clear of going too technical, instead looking at the very first fleeting emotional response I had when looking at the photo.

Many photographs have been born out of the current racial tension in America, showing the widespread violence and fear, but for some reason this photo below is the one that people are talking about, and are using words like “iconic” to describe.

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The photograph, by Reuters photojournalist Jonathan Bachman, shows a young woman facing down police officers in riot gear who are trying to quell protestors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The woman, later arrested and identified as nurse Ieshia Evans, stands resolutely in the face of opposition.

The photo has become so popular, and so symbolic of the current climate in the US, that people are comparing it to Jeff Widener’s photograph Tank Man, of a man standing before a convoy of tanks during the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, 1989. Which is remarkable, because even if the name is unfamiliar, a lot of people can at least recall the image of Tank Man, it is so pervasive in our cultural recollection.

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Why did the photo of Ieshia and the riot police evoke such a strong reaction for people? In a time where we are bombarded by images 24 hours a day, for a photograph to quickly gain as much attention as it has is a huge feat and speaks to the fact that photographs are still a powerful means of shaping and framing our humanity and experience. Blogs have been written about the photograph, dissecting every aspect of it.

For me, my first reaction to the photo was that I was immediately drawn to the young woman. People will speak of the contrast between the heavily suited and armed police officers and the almost bare woman, but if we’re to look at her she is an incredible anchor point in the photo. She is resolute, immobile. Her back is ramrod straight, her fists are clenched. And yet she’s wearing a flowing summer dress, that is blowing gently and moving about her as she’s completely still. She’s not holding a weapon. Her face is serene almost, resolved.

In the face of that power, that contradiction, it almost looks like the police confronting her have been rocked back on their heels. They almost look as though they are put off-balance by some invisible forcefield around her. They are heavily covered head to toe in black. They are the ones who are shielded, protected, and yet they are almost cowering.

The photo is bare and doesn’t look edited. You can practically feel how hot and oppressive the air is, the light, very small breeze blowing her dress but not offering relief to the scene. Those were the things that stood out for me. It’s those tensions between elements in the scene that tell us so much about the tensions of what the photograph is about.

Is it iconic? Yes, I think so. Will it be talked about an recognised like Widener’s Tank Man? I’m not sure. Like I said, we don’t consume photographs in the same way that we used to. However we won’t know until it’s decades down the track and we are looking back on the current political climate in the US. But I think people will use Bachman’s photo of Ieshia and the soldiers as one representation and visual aid to help discuss our human experience.