Pete Souza: The Radical Photographer

Peter Souza, the former Chief Official White House Photographer for President Barack Obama, seems to have learnt and mastered the art of direct indirectness.

Pete Souza

On January 21, a day after the inauguration of the now-president Donald Trump, Souza created a personal Instagram account. His old one, which he had used for the eight years he worked in the White House, had since been archived and is now being maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, along with all other digital records of Barack Obama’s eight years in office. Ever since Souza began posting, major media outlets have began noticing that his pictures seem to be indirectly insulting President Trump, although he does not outright say so.

An example of some of the headlines

Albeit a bit more toned down, what Souza is doing is extremely similar to the radical cartoonists and visual artists of 1900’s who aimed to condense complex meanings and issues into a single striking image (Lumsden 226). In her essay titled Visual Rhetoric, Photojournalism, and Democratic Public Culture, author Linda Lumsden, states that these cartoon images were used to cultivate community in order to propel causes that supported issues such as workers’ right to organize, African Americans’ right to live free of terrorism, women’s right to birth control, and all Americans’ right to free speech (Lumsden 226).

An example of a radical cartoon

In many ways Pete Souza’s photos seems to be using, intentionally or not, the same techniques as these radical cartoonists, the similarities between them being that they both employ images to cultivate community in order to propel a cause. For example, just by reading the comments his followers leave for him (pictured below) one can see that there is a common theme and a similar tone. Adrienne LaFrance, a writer from The Atlantic, has noticed this as well, and states in her article titled Pete Souza’s Alternate Timeline, that on Souza’s Instagram feed:

“The overwhelming tone is one of homesickness for the recent past … Souza’s account demonstrates the power of nostalgia as a salve for anxiety.”

Some users have even admitted that they use his pictures as “a form of therapy” during the Trump presidency. One user also mentioned that s/he looks at them to “calm down” in order to feel peaceful.

Just a few of the comments

The main difference however, between Souza and the radical cartoonists lies with the intention and end goal goal of both parties; because while the cartoonists called for social justice, Souza has not explicitly stated what it is exactly that he hopes to achieve from the pictures he posts. Although, like I stated earlier, his account has received a lot of coverage in the news, he has yet to accept any interviews or answer any questions regarding it from major news outlets. Therefore, we are left with trying to pinpoint what it is he’s trying to gain only through what he’s giving us.

Perhaps his goal has absolutely nothing to do with the public image of the current Presidential administration, and everything to do with the former one. It’s very possible that he intends to protect the image and reputation of Obama, especially in light of the allegations made by President Trump that Obama had spied on him by “wire tapping” his phones last year.

This theory stems from the fact that while the radical cartoonists use of imagery was intended to cultivate group identity, foster collective action, and promote rebellion, Souza’s pictures on the other hand seem to placate his followers. As if to reasure them that yes, Obama was and always will be a good president.

It’s Not The Intent, It’s The Effect

However, there are times where Souza’s underlining messages seem to be taking jabs at Donald Trump despite the fact that Trump is actually never present in any of the pictures. This intentional exclusion of Trump might be his most powerful rhetorical tool yet, because it gives the impression that Obama is still the President. Still, the thought of who currently resides at the White House is never far away from one’s mind, because through the captions that accompany his photos, we are persuaded and encouraged to find parallels while dissecting or interpreting what it is that Souza is trying to tell us.

As a professional photographer Souza is very competent with a camera and this is a very powerful skill. Aristotle believed that fluency with images and their use was, and still is, very crucial to controlling credibility and creating emotional appeal, and even, to some extent, logical appeal (LaGrandeur 119). If manipulated properly by a someone who knows what s/he is doing, any image can be used to successfully make an argument, and Souza — who not only served Obama, but President Reagan as well — is anything if not competent.

For example, On January 31st he posted the picture above of Obama, Joe Biden, and Merrick Garland having a conversation. This picture was posted after it was announced that Donald Trump had rejected Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court Justice pick, in favour of Neil Gorsuch. By inputting the phrase “Just saying”, Souza is indirectly implying that he does not approve of Merrick Garland’s dismissal.

Having said that, cultural knowledge is very important to fully understand Souza’s intentions and connotative messages. For those who don’t know the long campaign held by the Democrats to get Garland seated, it would be easy to mistake Souza’s post as a shallow complaint or objectification, when in fact it was a huge battle fought between the Democrats and Republicans.

“This is a stolen seat being filled by an illegitimate and extreme nominee, and I will do everything in my power to stand up against this assault on the court” — Jeff Merkley, an Oregon state Senator after Grouch had been nominated

On January 31st again Souza posted this picture of Obama drinking with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. In the caption he wrote “This one is for grover. President Obama sampling some tequila with President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013”. This picture was posted just after it had been widely reported in the news that Peña Nieto had cancelled his meeting with Trump over the latter’s statements that Mexico would play for Trump’s plan to build a border wall. Following the cancellation, Peña Nieto announced to the public, through a video statement posted on Twitter, that “Mexico does not believe in walls. I’ve said time again; Mexico will not pay for any wall”. For anyone that was following this story at the time, Souza’s timing to post this picture would have been a deliberate attempt to contrast the seemingly pleasant relationship Peña Nieto had with Obama, with the tension-filled one he currently has with Trump.

In the aftermath of his meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Donald Trump was widely mocked for the 19-second long handshake between the to world leaders. At the end of it Abe’s facial expression seems to be a mixture of complete relief and nausea. Many news outlets called the meeting “uncomfortable to watch and awkward”.

However, on February 11th Souza posted this picture of Obama and Abe, along with some other people, sitting and conversing on what happens to be a yacht. The juxtaposition of the seemingly relaxed atmosphere of the Obama meeting, compared to the unpleasant one with Abe was very jarring. Just like with the photo with Mexican Peña Nieto photo, one cannot help but think or come to the conclusion that Souza is trying to say that the former president was much better at international and intercultural communication than the current president.

Furthermore, in Souza’s Instagram post above, the third emoji to the right, that seems to be wearing sunglasses is basically a commenter acknowledging the “shade” that Souza is showing. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word “shade” is a North American slang used “to express contempt or disrespect for someone publicly especially by subtle or indirect insults or criticisms “. In other words, Souza’s irony is not lost on his followers.

On January 21st Souza made another statement when he posted a picture of Obama at the Oval office with the caption: “I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?” Many saw this post as a reaction to the widely circulated image of Donald Trump in his newly decorated Oval Office. In the picture it’s very obvious that Trump had changed the curtains from Obama’s preferred colour of salmon-red to yellow-gold.

Then again on February 25th Souza posted a picture of Barack Obama sitting in the situation room with Hillary Clinton to his left, and former vice-president Joe Biden to his right. His caption said: “President Obama meets in the situation room for the first time with his national security team on Jan. 23, 2009. During eight years I documented probably more than 100 meetings in the Situation Room. Not sure if it gets much use now.” This post was made after it was widely circulated that Donald Trump was not present in the Situation Room for his first military operation as President, which happened to be a Navy Seal strike on a suspected Al-Qaeda camp. This strike was widely commentated on in the media, especially after it became known that 30 civilians and a Navy Seal had died as well. Many saw this as a clear sign that Donald lacked the hands-on approach of former presidents, and was therefore not fit for the job.

This picture that Souza posted is probably one of his most straightforward and judgmental ones because of the sensitivity of the incident. Nonetheless, by pointing out that he was present for “more than 100 meetings in the Situation Room” it is very apparent that he’s implying that Obama was a better president.

The Power of Iconography

A very important aspect about Souza’s photos is that due to Souza’s position as photographer to a former president, these imahes automatically carry a lot of iconic prestige. Souza was part of the few people who until now, had any access to these photos, and that in itself carries a lot of weight.

Authors John Louis Lucaites and Robert Hariman, who both wrote the essay titled Visual Rhetoric, Photojournalism, and Democratic Public Culture, might even go as far as to say that they are “iconic photographs”. According to Lucaites and Hariman, there are four main factors that make a photograph iconic:

1. They have to be recognized by every- one within a public culture

2. They should be understood to be representations of historically significant events

3. They are objects of strong emotional identification or response

4. And lastly, these photos should regularly reproduced or copied across a range of media, genres, and topics (Lucaites and Hariman 15)

Although many people might not recognize who anyone else in a particular picture is, because Obama is present in most of them, they are regarded as “representations of historically significant events”. However, when people do know or understand the context of the image, even more significance is attached to it. Points number three and four are very obvious because as mentioned before, Souza’s Instagram feed has not only been considered as a some sort of “safe place” for overwhelmed Obama supporters, but it has also received a lot of attention in the media as well.

Additionally, like the first point states, these images are iconic only within a “public culture”. Centuries ago culture might have only be limited to a specific physical place, but because of the Internet anyone really can be a part of, or at least know, about a particular culture. However, to understand some of the underlying messages of Souza’s posts you have to be someone who follows and understands the American political culture. The words or captions that accompany his photos are equally important as well and should not be ignored. Pete Souza knows this very well and pays careful attention to what he writes, because he knows that it will undoubtedly have a certain effect on his audience. After all, there is only so much he can do, and the audience also has a responsibility in terms of interpreting the text (Moss 241).

Like Emily VanderBeek wrote in her article titled Why Instagram Captions Matter:

The cool thing about imagery is that it leaves a lot open for interpretation. What may seem black and white to one person can be looked upon as arbitrary to another. Use this to your advantage. Put a unique spin on your photos by using a caption that makes a viewer look at your photo with a different lens than they would have before.

For example in the picture he posted with Merrick Garland and Obama regarding the Supreme Court Justice nomination, the simple act of putting Garland’s name was really important, because many might not have known who he was. Now they have a chance to Google his name and become a part of the discussion. The same thing goes for the pictures of Obama with other government officials such as Shinzo Abe and Peña Nieto.

To conclude, although Pete Souza does not plan on starting a revolution anytime soon, for anyone that abhors the Trump administration, his Instagram page serves as a perfectly curated reminder about what was, and what could be.

Works Cited

LaGrandeur, Kevin. “Digital Images and Classical Persuasion.” Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media edited by Mary E. Hocks and Michelle R. Kendrick. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2003. 376 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0–262–08317–5, vol. 37, no. 4, 2004, pp. 343–344.

Lumsden, Linda. “Striking Images: Visual Rhetoric and Social Identify in the Radical Press, 1903–1917.” Visual Communication Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4, 2010, pp. 225–240.

Locates, John Louis and Hariman, Robert. “Visual Rhetoric, Photojournalism, and Demo- cratic Public Culture,” Rhetoric Review 20 (2001): 38

Moss, Dori. “The Animated Persuader.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 40, no. 02, 2007, pp. 241–244.