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.
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.
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.
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.
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.