When the White House opened its Flickr account in 2009, photographer Pete Souza hoped to capture both the public and the private sides of the American presidency. For Souza, it was a unique opportunity to get inside the otherwise closed doors to the Oval Office. Over the past four years, Souza and his team have delivered a dazzling collection of images from President Obama's first term. These galleries feature a strong balance between the president's time spent with world leaders and advisers and with his family and dog, Bo.
By no means is Souza the first photographer to gain this kind of access to a sitting president. (Souza himself had also covered President Reagan for many years.) There are many famous photos of presidents that stand out through the years; but in recent decades we've seen a steady growth in the number of candid shots that help illuminate what these leaders look like—and behave like—when they're not striking a pose for a pool of reporters. This kind of transparency has helped break down the walls separating the commander in chief from his constituents.
The photos selected to appear inside the official White House Flickr feed help frame a narrative. It is "a message vehicle, not a reporting one," as political reporter Ben Smith put it in 2010. By opening up the Flickr feed to all news organizations to share these photos on their sites, the Obama administration has relished the opportunity to spread messages of their choosing. Sometimes, it's not difficult to identify the intent behind the scenes. For instance, one Vanity Fair blogger noticed last spring that the feed was filling up with shots of the president holding young children, a common photo and video trope along the campaign trail. After all, winning campaigns goes well beyond the ability to assure Americans that you're the best candidate on domestic and foreign policy.
The application of social media to convey a candidate's message to the people is an integral part of today's campaigning; releasing and encouraging the circulation of photos to help sway public opinion in your favor is a natural step for politics. Though it wasn't a shot from the White House team, a picture of the president and the first lady went viral in the hours after his re-election, setting a Twitter record for retweets and thus proving once and for all that it is possible to eclipse Justin Bieber's popularity. A week later, a Flickr picture of Obama posing with U.S. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney caught people's eyes. But it's not always fun and games.
Looking back at the White House's photostream over the months leading up to the election, there's a decidedly more serious tone to the pictures. In recent weeks, Hurricane Sandy left President Obama with a community to comfort, and some of those moments are highlighted there. At times of need or in states of emergency, Obama is arguably at his best. And the pictures are there to prove it. These hurricane photos stand in stark contrast to ones taken earlier in this summer when the president could be seen traveling around the United States meeting with farm workers, enjoying a drink at pubs with potential voters, and addressing crowds at small outdoor gatherings. You never know where a great photo op will turn up. Obama's photographers have been on hand to capture it all, echoing the message of the day.
The White House Flickr feed serves as a slideshow of Obama's time in office. It's a visual representation of the highs and lows of the job, a living document from which we can better understand the day-to-day activities of the President. People tend to share the photos that make the president appear the most human, whether smiling with his wife, or bracing for the bin Laden raid in the Situation Room, or mimicking a meme. Obama was the candidate who best understood the power of picture, and he's the president who has given us the greatest illustration of the demands and responsibilities that come with the job.