Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 18, 2017

Obama as Chicago Keepsake — A Unique Photo Farewell

Photo: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times. Finnie Haire, the owner of Hairer’s Gulf Shrimp, with a painting featuring Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, with President Obama standing over them.

This past Sunday, The New York Times published a unique Obama farewell story and slideshow. Inside homes and restaurants, we see different ways people in Chicago have saved and displayed Obama’s image or memorabilia. Since November 8th, we have been inundated with farewell news photos or White House images of Obama. Rather than the typical portraits, these pictures demonstrate respect and identification in a more personal way.

Above, for example, we see a portrait of Finnie Haire, the owner of Hairer’s Gulf Shrimp. Perhaps it stood out to me because Obama is stepping down the same week the nation honors Martin Luther King. The painting sets Obama atop a triangle with Mandela and MLK. To create this gathering inside what looks like the White House Colonnade pays homage to Obama as the progeny, and the guardian of great black leaders. One might also notice, however, how the figures on the left are mostly in white while Malcolm X is the answer to: “which one is not like the others?” If Mandela and King are seen, at least today, in more complex terms, it’s interesting how the placement of Malcolm X in the black suit, offset but central at the same time (shades of Jeremiah Wright?), both incorporates but qualifies Obama’s more radical spirit.

Finnie’s expression, by the way, is complex too. I’m thinking wistful.

Finnie Haire, the owner of Hairer’s Gulf Shrimp, with a painting featuring Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, with President Obama standing over them. Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times.

He may have been attacked for his politics and slandered for his race and his name, but there was one quality about Obama over the eight years that remained virtually unassailable. That was his bond with Michelle and his daughters. If Obama’s personality did not conform to a more authoritarian model and his strength emanated from a quieter place, his character made a difference — especially in guiding America through economic free fall. Judging simply from her refrigerator, that household note board and source of sustenance, Lulu Ford related to him as family, as did so many African-Americans and those of mixed race, who uniquely recognize him as one of their own.

Obama_Chicago_2

This picture by local photographer Dawoud Bey hangs in Tweet Restaurant. Of course, we love these finds, so typical of cherished neighborhood restaurants.  This is Obama before he became “Obama.” In light of the complex legacy (and all the grey and the furrows that came with it), what is so warm and soothing about the photo is that he retains the eternal promise of the favorite son.

Photos: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times. Caption: An Obama calendar and postcard at Lula Ford’s Chicago apartment.  Caption 2: Finnie Haire, the owner of Hairer’s Gulf Shrimp, with a painting featuring Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, with President Obama standing over them. Caption 3: Inside of Tweet Restaurant is a photographic portrait by the Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey of Senator Barack Obama, before he was elected president. 

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