Why the White House situation room photo is so powerful

04_situation-room

[Last update: 5/5/2011, 12:11 pm, CST]
[Update: 7/28/2016, fixed some broken links]

[This is a post about why photography is a unique and powerful medium, even in an era when I spend a lot of time preaching to people that learning to edit video on the fly is a required skill anyone who communicates for a living must master — right up there with knowing how to type and how to make a presentation without using bullet points.]

Yesterday, when I saw the White House had used Flickr to release a set of photos of President Obama and his security team monitoring the Bin Laden raid, I was immediately captivated by the photo above and posted it on my Tumblr account.

Later last night, I went back to the Flickr set because I wanted to study the photo a bit more closely to see what made the photo so compelling, beyond its obvious historic significance. (I can assure you the photographer took dozens of photos of equally historic significance, but this is the one not culled and released and that will be the shot associated with this moment.)

At first, I thought it was the intensity of the President that made the shot — it did when I first saw it. Obama’s crouching position (while others are erect or leaning back) is probably going to be analyzed by body-language experts, but any group of people who’ve watched a TV sporting event (and I apologize in advance for the following comparison, considering the serious nature of what they were watching), will recognize Obama’s position as that of the person in the room who in addition to being a fan, has just made a call to his bookie.

My second thought was that the photo was captivating because it was so different from how such scenes have been depicted in countless movies and TV shows. In such dramas, this would not be taking place in a spartan, crowded conference room with all the aesthetic appeal of a Marriott Hotel business center — and a table full of HP laptops that still have Intel Inside and Windows stickers on them. In an episode (in every episode) of “24” this would be in an expansive subterranean room filled with translucent touch screens that make all sorts of electronic beeping and screeching sounds when they zoom in to watch the action of each soldier on the ground.

But, upon further examination, I’ve decided this photo’s true power can best be understood by looking at it, as one can do on Flickr, at the original size it was posted, 4996 x 2731 pixels At this size, you can see the photo as its photographer saw it through the lens — or the photo-editor who chose it might.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 9.26.42 PMAt 4996 x 2731¬†pixels, you can immediately see the photo’s focal point is Hillary Clinton — more specifically, her eyes.

The photo tells a story of an entire room of people, but this is a photograph of Hillary Clinton. And, frankly, it is one of the most powerful, honest photographs you’ll ever see of a public figure.

Update: (via Flickr) In addition to the President and Vice President, identification of people in the photo: Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Binken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Update 2: On Flickr, the copy accompanying the photo indicates the document on the table is obscured because it is classified.

Update 3: Photo credits and settings: Photographer: Pete Souza; Canon 5D MkII, 35mm f/1.4L USM, f/3.5, 1/100s, ISO 1600 (via: John Goldsmith, see comments below).

Update 4: The photo has turned into an internet meme, via: Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic

Update 5: If you haven’t visited the situation room Flickr set, you should at least take a look at this photo, as it will provide you with an idea of what the rest of the room looks like.

Update 6: According to TechCrunch, the photo is on its way to being the most-viewed photo on Flickr. (This post is going to set similar records for this blog.)

Update 7: Clinton says she doesn’t remember what she was doing when this photo was taken — perhaps trying to keep from coughing, she says.

  • Terrific post. This moment is certainly the sort that the Clinton campaign ad was referring to when they raised doubts about how Obama would handle the 2am call. He turned out to be as cool as a cucumber waiting 8 months to get all the ducks in a row for a successful operation. It’s not hard to imagine some politicians who would have just said “bombs away” last August and the world might never have known we “got him”. Or worse, the bombs missed their target and hit that military academy nearby.

  • Great post. Actually if you look at the image in ‘original size’, you’ll see that Obama is slightly out of focus; Clinton is not. That supports what you’ve written.

  • It captivated me as well, and particularly, like you, it was Hillary Clinton’s expression that drew me in. The blurred document also caught my eye as does the uniformed man at the computer. I’m curious what roll he has and what he is looking at on that screen. Also interesting is the other woman, only one of two, standing in the back. Finally, is it me or does Biden look to be the only one who isn’t watching with the same intent as ALL of the others? Maybe I should just be happy he was awake. ;)nnAnyway… I don’t think it’s a great photo but it sure gives us, the viewers, a sense of the intensity of the moment and the gravity of the decision. That is the power of photography.

  • It captivated me as well, and particularly, like you, it was Hillary Clinton’s expression that drew me in. The blurred document also caught my eye as does the uniformed man at the computer. I’m curious what roll he has and what he is looking at on that screen. Also interesting is the other woman, only one of two, standing in the back. Finally, is it me or does Biden look to be the only one who isn’t watching with the same intent as ALL of the others? Maybe I should just be happy he was awake. ;)nnAnyway… I don’t think it’s a great photo but it sure gives us, the viewers, a sense of the intensity of the moment and the gravity of the decision. That is the power of photography.

  • I was trying to keep from getting too photographer-geekish, but that’s exactly what I meant. nnIn photo-geek language: The aperture setting of lens was wide open in order to shoot with available light (no flash). This meant there was a very narrow depth of field. The photographer was focusing on Clinton’s eyes so everything in front or in back of her face is “soft.”

  • While I didn’t intend for this to be a post about politics, you’re reference to that 2 a.m. call ad sure does add another level of story-telling to this photo.

  • I was going to mention her — I want to know who she is. While the people around the table are identified on Flickr, I wonder who those other folks are.

  • John and RexnnIf you go to the flikr page and read the description you will find that the “short women, anonymous staffer” is actually Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism !

  • Thanks. Obviously, a *part* of history and not just observing it.

  • Hillary Clinton’s expression that drew me in, she knew that they caught him after 10 years

  • Thanks, jedpc!nnIf you turn your computer upside-down, you can read the cover of HC’s notebook:nn”Top Secret Codeword NOFORN. For use in White House Situation Room Only”nnAlso, any photo nerds will know how to find the EXIF data in the photo. :)nnCanon 5D MkII, 35mm f/1.4L USM, f/3.5, 1/100s, ISO 1600, Photographer: Pete Souza. As always. What a job he has!

  • NOFORN = No Foreign Nationals

  • It’s also interesting that the military guy is the only one not glued to the screen. He’s confident of the mission’s outcome, while the civilians are not.

  • Why journalism and photography are so important to our democracy. Thanks for Jody for finding this.

  • Why journalism and photography are so important to our democracy. Thanks for Jody for finding this.

  • Why journalism and photography are so important to our democracy. Thanks for Jody for finding this.

  • Anonymous

    I love photography and capturing the emotion of a moment more than just a picture. Thank you for this great post and explanation of how vital and powerful a photo can be.

  • Anonymous

    I love photography and capturing the emotion of a moment more than just a picture. Thank you for this great post and explanation of how vital and powerful a photo can be.

  • Anonymous

    I love photography and capturing the emotion of a moment more than just a picture. Thank you for this great post and explanation of how vital and powerful a photo can be.

  • Thanks, John. I appreciate you adding that bit of photo nerdiness. ; )

  • Nancy

    Certainly the faces of Obama and Clinton jump out. My eye passed from one to the other, back and forth. I barely saw anything else. nnTwo different reactions by the two who would shoulder the praise or blame. I found this photo riveting. nnYou can feel the tension in the room.

  • rick jones

    Obama being crouched in the corner sitting in the small chair certainly does capture the essence of the commander in chief as spectator. Also, he seems to be the only male in the room not in a button-down shirt.

  • rick jones

    Which agency’s logo is that on the sheet of paper underneath the pixelated one on Clinton’s laptop? Presumably what we can see on it, and on the bit of the paper we see in front of Biden wasn’t deemed “pixelate-worthy.”

  • rick jones

    The expression along with the way the hand is at the mouth suggest having just seen something particularly unpleasant.

  • rick jones

    Webb is no doubt confident. That said he’s actually doing something rather than watching it on the screens in the front of the room. Perhaps “driving” as it were (though we do see an external video cable connected to Clinton’s laptop).

  • So, are you suggesting we elect Harrison Ford in Airforce One as president? Are you saying Obama’s role as commander in chief is not to review and order the mission, but also, what?, strap on a headphone and mic and start commanding the Navy SEALs what they should do? I think you’re confusing this with playing a videogame.

  • I saw that Flickr photo yesterday too, downloaded and looked at it at the original size too. I was struck by the same things that hit you too. Except I decided not to post it. Now maybe I think I should with my own spin, because I have one thing to say no one else has. Maybe. I need to find something on my HD that needs to accompany it.

  • I posted:nhttp://mikecanex.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/that-photo/

  • Anonymous

    I immediately saw Hillary Clinton and thought that’s what made the picture. I didn’t even notice Obama sitting in the background of the picture until I read your post. haha

  • Great post and clip from Patriot Games.

  • Pingback: Storytelling Business Social Media Marketing PR & Technology Curated Stories May 3, 2011()

  • I’m really glad you wrote about this. I was thinking the same thing when I first saw the pic. Her eyes and expression are so telling.

  • The Oval Office has to be one of the best lit rooms ever.

  • rick jones

    No, just that once the OK has been given, the President becomes a spectator, and cannot really do much to alter the outcome as it is up to the folks in the field.

  • rick jones

    Sigh, clearly it is time for new bifocals. I’d forgotten that the power cords had the magnetic ferules on them.

  • okay. but this isn’t the oval office.

  • Anonymous

    Wow; you’re right… Hillary is the only one in sharp focus in the high-res photo. Dunno if that was an accident or not, but there it is.nThe “mundane-ness” of the laptops, all government issue with warning stickers on the tops and bar-coded asset tags on the insides just adds to the surreality…nn-MJ

  • Anonymous

    Um….nn”This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way …”nnHope the Secret Service treats you guys nicely.

  • Anonymous

    Typical comment from someone who over-uses a point-and-shoot camera. Serious photography is not hard, in any lighting.

  • 1. No one related to this post has manipulated it. 2. If you’re referring to the photoshopped photos, I suggest you google “fair-use” and “satire” and enjoy. 3. Busting people who making fun of elected officials is not under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service. 4. This photo is about the extremes our country will go in protecting citizens from those who challenge the threat that the Secret Service will show up at our doorsteps because we photoshop photos that were taken by a photographer who is on the payroll of the American tax payers.

  • Bluewolfe77

    He was golfing that afternoon, golfing attiren

  • I think Clinton’s expression is one of three parts of the photo that make it interesting. The second is Obama himself, but not for his posture or expression; rather, it’s the fact that he’s sitting in the corner of the room, away from the Situation Room table. It’s rare that we see a photo of a President who isn’t in complete control of a situation; he’s given the order, but it seems as though there was nothing he could do to affect the outcome at the moment this photo was taken. The same is true of Admiral Mullen, standing at left. The highest-ranking military officer in the United States is standing at the back of the room, watching.nnAll three of these factors have a common thread: they’re novel. It’s rare to see Clinton unsure of a situation, and it’s unusual to see a photo of Obama and Mullen in which they are not at the metaphorical (or literal) head of the table, if only for a brief instant. Together they bring a tension to the photo that makes it captivating.nnOne last thing: Souza is an absolutely amazing photographer and has provided what I believe are some of the best Presidential candids of all time. If you haven’t spent a couple of hours browsing the White House photostream already, please do.

  • Federicorebosio

    When a professional photograph has to take a picture of a disperse group like this one, by instinct focus near close of the most nearest point of interest. If he focuses in the middle or close to the point of interest that is far away, the picture will show all the nearest point out of focus. The photographer just did the only way that could be done, considering that he (or she) wises to state the tension of what was happening in the room. If he would have focus on the President, almost all the rest of the people would have been out of focus.nnHilary just was at the correct distance to focus. And indeed, she really shows us better than anyone, the drama, feelings and tension inside the room.nnAll the rest seems to be casual.

  • As I tried to write in the original post, hundreds of shots were made. This photo was selected and shared because of the result of what the photographer did. Whether it was his instincts (I assume it was considering the experience of the photographer) or sheer luck (all great photos are magic combinations of timing, light, etc.) is beside the point. In this particular photo, Clinton captures the drama of the moment — and the photo captures here.

  • Great observations. Sidenote: My favorite White House photographer of all time: David Hume Kennerly (ironic, as he was photographer during the rather lame presidency of Gerald Ford).

  • To me Hillary and Obama both stand out in the picture. Interesting when we see the full picture how it looks a bit different and you can definitely tell what the center of the picture center was. I look forward to networking with you in the near future. nnJ. Souza nSocialMediaMagic.Com

  • So what were they watching? The CIA is saying that no live video feed of the actual operation was available. They admit a blackout… Hillary also said she came under fire in Bosnia with a straight face… The Drama queen’s words or reactions can not be interpreted as truth.

  • “Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, revealed there was a 25 minute blackout during which the live feed from cameras mounted on the helmets of the US special forces was cut off. A photograph released by the White House appeared to show the President and his aides in the situation room watching the action as it unfolded. In fact they had little knowledge of what was happening in the compound.”

  • Tourist

    Has anyone tried to enlarge the Reflexion in Hillary’s eyes yet?

  • csquared

    of course there was a “BLACKOUT.” If there wasn’t, eventually that tape would be subject to a Freedom of Information Act request and available to the media and general public.