July 17, 2014

On the Brilliant Michelle Obama Brown vs Board of Education Site Visit Photo

(click for full size)

If you weren’t completely transfixed yesterday by the shooting down of a commercial jetliner over Ukraine, you might have come across this. Simply put, it’s the best visual to come out of the Administration in months, maybe longer. Full backstory on the photo and the visit to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site here.) One thing this image highlights by contrast is how visually tired this White House has grown. (That’s as compared to the Vatican, say, which is brimming with creative energy and a hunger for capturing the moment.)

Our takes:

• What’s brilliant about the photo is how it’s plays the “post-racial” ideal against the reality of continuing racism and discrimination. On the one hand, the first black First Lady transcends the “colored” label the same way we, as a culture, identify segregation and this specific set of terms as well behind us. On the other hand, Michelle Obama has been the object of racial slurs, especially visually ones, from the first campaign onward. (You can Google it.) On that level, what the photo communicates, in no uncertain terms, is that this label is continuously hung over her head.

• An extension of the last point, Michelle Obama has come a long way in her ability to establish her identity on her own terms. You recall the firestorm this caused because the Obamas weren’t known well enough to make it obvious parody? The parallels to the photo above, are also interesting. Just add “militant.”

• From a purely personal standpoint, it’s impressive how much power and presence Obama brings to the photo. The fact she’s so much taller than the education director at the center; that she’s dressed in all black; that she remains so receptive, listening that attentively as she also stands with her arms crossed, all conveys a deep assurance and personal authority. It requires that kind of presence to counterweigh those signs.

• Certainly, this picture has plenty of power on its own. As a historical statement and a personal portrait, however, this photo makes a perfect bookend to the First Lady’s very clever official portrait. Remember?

NOTE: The discussion thread on this post has been temporarily removed. The majority of the 95 comments were hostile, some offensive, and most significantly, had little or nothing to do with the photo. The purpose of this site is the discussion of visual politics and we ask that you direct your comments primarily to the imagery and issues surrounding the imagery. Thanks so much.

(photo: Chuck Kennedy/White House. caption: Michelle Obama tours the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, May 16, 2014.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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