This week in my visual politics class we're discussing how presidents use visual politics to construct themselves as leaders with phronesis, or practical wisdom. We're reading an essay on the "visual turn" in presidential rhetoric by Keith Erickson, along with a few recent articles about the Obama White House's media strategy. And then I'm asking the students to browse carefully the White House Flickr Photostream.
Obama used Flickr during the campaign, perhaps most famously to post election-night images that got lots of play. The White House version got up and running in late April, just as the much-hyped "100 Days" deadline was approaching. Since then, it's clearly become the go-to place for those seeking images of the Obama White House, particularly desirable behind-the-scenes shots. Michael Shaw at BAGnewsNotes, for example, recently mined the White House Flickr Photostream for this compelling reflection on the public response to Obama's Nobel Prize.
But I have yet to find much conversation - scholarly or otherwise - about the White House Flickr site itself. That is, what does Flickr allow the White House to do that it can't do, or do as well, in other ways? What does it mean to do visual politics in this way? Or, as we rhetoricians like to put it, what inventional resources does Flickr offer? I don't have very coherent thoughts on the subject quite yet, but so far my thinking is circulating around three things. I'll refine these thoughts as I continue conversations with my students and it's likely I'll try to work out some of these questions here on the blog or elsewhere.
1. They want us to see these pictures. If we want to get a good sense of what the White House thinks is important to visualize about Obama, the administration, its goals, or the presidency in general, then Flickr is a good place to go. The White House (who? the Communications office? a subset of staff? Pete Souza, White House photographer?) decides what goes there. Therefore, when we look at these images we know that *they* wanted us to see these images, whether it's Obama meeting with Girl Scouts or taking the kids to the Jefferson Memorial.
2. That doesn't mean, however, that we can know the White House's exact intentions in showing these images to us. *We* may see something different. So the point isn't that the images simply "mean" X or Y, but rather that they be understood as willful attempts at shaping Obama's political image. Apart from the question of intention, the photostream can be explored and examined for ways that it enables the White House to construct an image of Obama as a leader with phronesis.
3. Flickr is powerful because it's at once a robust archival tool and an utterly vernacular approach to photography. My favorite Flickr sites are those of the Library of Congress and the National Archives, both of which routinely publish on their photostreams marvelous historical images. But Flickr is primarily designed as a photo uploading and sharing site; the audience is as much Grandma and Grandpa as it is the archival researcher. For a nice example of the difference, check out this Halloween photograph as opposed to this one. The genius of the White House Flickr site is that it embraces both the archive and the snapshot: it's a living, changing historical record of the presidency with the deceptively transparent ethos of the family photo album.