One of the issues that got attention late in 2013 was photographers’ access to the president and the White House in general. Photographers covering President Obama became more active in their protests of being excluded from covering events involving the president. During both Obama administrations, many events involving the president have been covered by White House photographer Pete Souza. Photographs have then been distributed to media organizations and posted on the White House flickr account. To their credit, the White House communication staff has provided more photographs than preceding administrations, but it’s the official view.
So what’s the difference? Does it matter who takes a picture of the president meeting with the speaker of the House? Or a diplomat from another country? Photographers and reporters don’t get to sit in on the meetings anyway, and the picture session is pretty predictable. Does it matter whether the picture is made by a photojournalist working for a news organization or a photographer working for the White House as long as the public gets to see it?
For the photographers, and media in general, the issue is one of independently witnessing the activities involving the elected leader of the country. When the president meets other politicians or dignitaries or takes part in events, those who routinely cover the president want to witness and record the activities and share the images with the public. The desire reflects the role media has played as independent witnesses/recorders of government. Without that independent witness, there’s no accountability for the information that’s distributed. With no other photographs to depict the moment, there’s no way to know whether the official photographs are reflective of the reality of the event.
I’m a little dismayed that this became an issue at the end of 2013. I’m not dismayed because of the issue, I’m dismayed that the practice is still going on this far into President Obama’s second term. The practice of excluding photographers and distributing pictures made by the White House photographer started on the day of his first inauguration. To be fair though, attention to image control has increased throughout the last century and into this one. Photographers and reporters had more access to FDR, but there were rules about how he could be photographed. Eisenhower decreased access in his second term. JFK didn’t change access as much as he just didn’t present himself to the cameras until he was ready. An official in the Nixon administration coined the phrase “photo opportunity.” Reagan’s team was extremely attentive to controlling access and the angles photographers would have, and successive administrations have expanded the practices.
So it’s not just the current photographers and the current administration. It’s something that’s been an issue for decades to some degree. Is it important? I believe so. I can understand the perspective of those who question whether it matters that multiple photographers get to record politicians meeting. How many different pictures from roughly the same position do we need to see? The answer is, more than one. Partially because the existence of multiple photographs supports veracity of any one, or calls into question those that don’t quite match up. But more importantly, every additional restriction on access to seemingly innocuous events like official greetings opens the door to restrictions to other events. How long is it before access to official events is restricted? At what point is the public left with only the official version of events? That’s the real issue. And that’s why news organizations have to push back and work to regain access to show the public the activities of their leaders.