January 9, 2014

The FLOTUS Selfie and Photo Jujitsu: The White House Year in Pictures

What is endlessly intriguing (to me, at least) are the possible motives and story lines embedded in the ton of images the White House has been unload to Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr over the five years. It’s also curious to consider how these images respond to or even seek to counteract negative or problematic perceptions of the President in the public mind.

If the past is anything to go by, Obama and the White House have not only been attentive to how it is perceived in the media and popular culture (it’s linqua franca) but have proved quite adept at self-deprication or applying humor to criticism — laughing with us so no one is laughing at them.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider the Michelle selfie that materialized in the 106 photo “Year in Pictures” photo gallery published by the White House on December 31st as a response, at least in part, to the avalanche of negative attention that ensued from that notorious Obama selfie in Johannesburg at the Mandela tribute.

It would be perfectly understandable, by the way, if the White House and its Communications Office took the Johannesburg uproar just a little bit personally. I mean, how would you react if you were being ridiculed worldwide (even if the interpretation was not just unfair, but inaccurate) for ignoring your wife while acting all giggly with a quite attractive (white) fellow world leader as part of a group selfie during the Mandela tribute?

Sure, it’s quite a photo on its own with all the focus this year on, well, self-focus, but read as a counterpoint to Obama’s infamous selfie, it’s brilliant.  It mean, as a call and response, its got all kinds of layers to it. There’s the last laugh. The “look what you’re missing, dude!” And of course, Bo could also represent the President as a dog, or as relegated to the dog house.

Why the photo would bear any relationship with Johannesburg, though, is all about editing — presenting a mini-case study on just how strategically this administration manages and deploys its visual assets. To understand what I’m talking about, you need a little context on how the White House constructed the Year in Pictures slideshow.  Almost all of the photos in the year end collection were aggregated from photos originally posted on the White House Flickr site, those images largely posted chronologically and close to when they occurred. Not the selfie, however.

For some reason, the White House stopped organizing their Flickr photos into monthly sets after July of 2013 but if you compare the photos on the White House Flickr site those six months with the photos that populate the year-end slide show, you’ll notice, by my count, there are four photos (including this one, this one, the selfie and the one you see below) that were added a week-and-a-half ago on New Year’s Eve that didn’t appear on the Flickr site before. Of those four, three feature Michelle.

Of those three, this shot — from Michelle’s birthday on January 17th –stands out most prominently, not just because it’s the second photo in the gallery, but because of the content.  Here’s the caption:

“The President sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to the First Lady after greeting inaugural brunch guests in the Blue Room of the White House. Of course, the First Lady’s new hairstyle attracted a lot of attention.”(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

With Johannesburg in mind again, could we suppose that the White House was emphasizing the point that FLOTUS remains POTUS’s main squeeze?

Just a further point about how the White House is strategically moving this pictures around though.

It’s not that the FLOTUS selfie appeared for the first time in the year end slide show. Instead, it debuted on August 10, 2013 on the First Lady’s Twitter and Instagram feeds (as part of a brand building self-promotion by National Geographic online to create the world’s largest animal photo album). More interesting, however, is the original creation date. If you notice the photo credit below from the year end show (or the EXIF data from the Flickr site), you’ll notice that the photo was actually taken back on April 11, 2013. So, here is a photo that was taken in April but never published to the Flickr site as customary, was distributed via social media four months later like it was new, then published again — in this instance, to the Flickr site for the first time, as part of a year end review carrying the impact of a clever rejoinder to the South Africa selfie debacle.

Tactical communications, anyone?

( photo 1: Chuck Kennedy/White House, April 11 2013. caption: “Chuck Kennedy photographed the First Lady as she takes a ‘selfie’ with Bo, the Obama family dog, for National Geographic.” linked photo 1: Pete Souza, February 11, 2013. caption: “The First Lady watches as the children of former Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha choose apples in the Oval Office. The President later awarded SSG. Romesha the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry.” linked photo 2: Pete Souza/White House. March 13, 2013. caption: “The President talks with House Speaker John Boehner after the President participated in a Q&A with the House Republican Conference at the U.S. Capitol.”)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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