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The photography of No.43

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A series of photographs by Reuters depicting Bush reentering the White House East Room after his final televised press conference.

A series of photographs by Reuters depicting Bush reentering the White House East Room after his final televised press conference. Taken January 15, 2009. (Source: Reuters).

Today, a friend of mine posted a Facebook link to an engrossing article by the renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (THE THIN BLUE LINE, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE) from his NY Times blog titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.” Morris interviewed editors from three major news services– Vincent Amalvy of the AFP, Santiago Lyon of the AP, and Jim Bourg of Reuters–and asked them to pick and discuss photographs that embodied the persona of former President George W. Bush. The article provides a fascinating analysis of photos depicting iconic moments during his tenure, such as his proclamation on the end of major combat operations in Iraq (with the infamous ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ banner behind him), his brief survey of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina inside Air Force One, and comforting a firefighter at the World Trade Center site after September 11th, 2001.

All of the editors admit that the Bush administration never missed a moment to stage a photo-op showing the President at his most heroic during moments of crisis. But there are also photographs that reveal a more complicated side of Mr. Bush. Depending on the point of view, the images reflect a pomposity and vulnerability in him. In one photograph, Bush exaggeratedly gapes his mouth open when giving back a crying child to their parents. In another shot, he makes a clown face when unable to open a door at a press conference in Beijing, China. But the most revealing images of the President are a series of snapshots that were taken after his final televised press conference in the White House East Room.  Bush appears to look rattled as he returns to thank his family, members of the press, and other people that were with him for the past eight years. Bourge, photo editor for Reuters, poignantly reflects on the implicit meaning in the photos:

“And I turned to one of my editors — First I said, “Oh, my God.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “You’ve got to see this picture of Bush. This is really stunning.” And I flipped it over to him to process and his first reaction was, “Wow.” And I said, “If he wasn’t just back there behind that door crying, I don’t know what that look on his face is.” Because he just looks absolutely devastated as he comes through this door after essentially ending his eight year presidency. And it’s just really striking. He just looks absolutely devastated (NY Times).”

Events depicting heads of state are often carefully orchestrated to evoke a particular message or meaning. It is no secret that staged photo-ops provide an opportunity for any entity of power to manage and control the flow of public opinion and sentiment of any historical moment. And the photograph, as a medium, is often resorted as a means to affect, shift, and win over our hearts and minds.

But what happens when the details of a photograph reveal another perspective of a historical moment? Take for instance the famous image (taken by Pultzer Prize photographer Nick Ut) of a naked Vietnamese-Canadian girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, running on a street in pain from a napalm attack. It was a photograph that reflected the darker, more horrific side of the Vietnam War to the world, further agitating anti-war movements and human rights groups to press President Richard Nixon for its end.

In his seminal text on photography, CAMERA LUCIDA, the French philosopher Roland Barthes argued that every photograph evokes two distinguishing features: the studium, that expresses a cultural, ideological, and/or linguistic interpretation of the photographic subject/object, and the punctum, which denotes the affective reaction (which Barthes described as a ‘bruise,’ ‘sting,’ or ‘speck’) of seeing a photograph. These elements reveal that the act of seeing any photograph, regardless of context, arouse a reaction, interpretation and reflection on what is depicted and seen.

Of all of the images that I saw in the Morris article, the Reuters photos of Bush’s final press conference posted above are the ones that most affected me. The punctum is undeniably Bush’s exasperated face as he walks to meet the press. It is a singular moment in time that in my eyes define the end of his controversial tenure as President. The following are obvious facts: He seized a moment of great tragedy to wage two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His executive powers, and those of his Vice President, Dick Cheney, have been expanded in ways that will take decades of investigation, declassification, and meditation to fully grasp and understand by future heads of state, historians, filmmakers, cultural critics, and by us. And he leaves his position with some of the lowest final approval ratings ever given to a U.S. President (33% according to Gallup, 22% in a CBS/NY Times poll).

The White House East Room photos are powerfully devastating. They reveal a tiny glimpse of something, someone human in George W. Bush. Behind the facade of buzz words, snapshots, documentaries, video clips, and government endorsed doublespeak that have defined him for two presidential terms, the photographs seem to offer a corrective of sorts, showing a broken, tired shadow of his self generated and media created persona. This is a man who clearly has nothing left to give to his nation, his people, his critics, and his supporters. Nothing but a face to the cameras in the room.

The Morris piece is a terrific photographic essay of the most influential political figure of our young century. Yes, the new commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, has himself become a popular global icon and brand akin to ‘W.’ But above him lies a greater specter, a flesh-and-blood Wizard of Oz, the (un) fortunate son of the United States’ most powerful political family. So it is fitting that in a photograph, lie evident the traces of what George W. Bush has done and what he has left behind.

Written by elcuzcatleco

01/27/2009 at 5:14 am

Posted in media, photography, politics