Why the White House situation room photo is so powerful


[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.