Obama Flicks

Posted in Uncategorized by Joachim Schmid on Dezember 13, 2008

Elections in the US are a different thing than elections in most European countries. Election campaigns are even more different. Looking at pictures of national conventions of political parties, we feel reminded of rock concerts or religious services getting out of hand. Only the ubiquitous merchandising tells us it’s about politics: posters, stickers, buttons, baseball caps, t-shirts, coffee mugs and fridge-door magnets spread the word, not dissimilar to a brand name.
This year’s elections were different from previous elections. Even friends who usually avoid conversations about politics or people you just met were more than willing to express their opinions. For good reasons, the vast majority of people were fed up with their government, more than ever before, and people were afraid, also for good reasons, that their fellow voters‘ stupidity might jeopardise their country’s future one more time, big style.
I spent ten days in the US just before the elections. There was a collective, unprecedented tension in the country that seemed to be tangible nearly everywhere, nearly every minute. One afternoon I took a picture of a poster depicting Sarah Palin as a frightening, furious vampire somewhere in Manhattan and I had not yet pressed the button when a good-looking woman enthusiastically told me that she had taken the very same picture earlier that same day. It sounded like „Young man, do you have any plans for tonight?,“ and even if she didn’t say „young man“ and probably didn’t mean „young man“ it felt like young man. The message was „Yes, we can.“
The Sarah Palin poster’s design resembled that of another poster depicting Barack Obama that was pasted all over cities. There were several variations of the poster; under the man’s identical effigy there was one word only in each version: HOPE, CHANGE, PROGRESS, or FUTURE. For many viewers, the design was reminiscent of social realist art or of fascist propaganda. The affinity is arguable, but in my view the heavenward gaze makes another connotation much more obvious: the portrait of the redeemer.
The country is deep in the shit. But there’s hope. Change seems possible. There might be progress. There is future. Obama is young, McCain isn’t. Obama’s team uses the Internet, McCain’s team doesn’t. Obama is modern. Obama is cool. Obama won. They say he’s the president elected by the web. Even if this may be exaggerated, studying Obama’s presence on the web helps us understand his success.
Obama has a Flickr account ( tcom/). Between February 2007 and November 2008 nearly 55,000 photos were uploaded to this account. These are pictures taken by a number of people at rallies. Many of them show the candidate, the nominee, the president-elect, Obama speaking, Obama shaking hands, Obama doing this or that. Many of them show Obama supporters holding Obama signs, Obama supporters cheering, Obama supporters taking photographs of their idol, Obama supporters doing this or that. Hardly any one of them is a remarkable photograph. They are not meant to be. They are the sticky little things that keep the community together.
All photos in Obama’s account were viewed several times, some of them were viewed excessively, like by more than 200,000 unique visitors. Many of them are commented, some of them have hundreds of comments. Obama has more than 7,000 contacts on Flickr and more than 80 testimonials. None of them mentions Obama’s photos. His Flickr account is not about photographs, it is about presence. For the web-community it says „I am one of you.“
The function of Obama’s Flickr account changed during the night after the elections. Photos taken at the hotel where Obama spent election night with his family waiting for the results were uploaded nearly in real time and launched and distributed for the general press right away. Far from being family snapshots, these pictures were meant to add some human touch. Here’s daddy Barack without his jacket, here’s the wife, here are the kids. The mother-in-law is there, too. What a nice family, human beings just like us. No bodyguards.
Obama supporters have Flickr accounts, too, and these contain basically the same type of picture we find in Obama’s account: more or less unambitious snapshots showing Obama or his supporters doing this or that, waiting, cheering, clapping, and eventually celebrating. Looking at the photographs posted soon after the elections we understand that we missed quite a party. Alas, snapshots taken at parties…. Among all those snapshots there are some pictures, however, that deserve a closer inspection.
There are thousands of photographs of ballots on Flickr. A Flickr search ‘ballot obama’ shows five times as many results as ‘ballot mccain’. Going through the latter group we find three votes cast for McCain. Three. The man may seem to be a tough guy in the Midwest, his cool-factor on the web is close to zero.
Taking photographs in voting booths is illegal in many countries, including some of the US states. (In the good old times of poverty and corruption, interested parties a.k.a mafia bought huge numbers of shoes prior to elections. Italian voters received a left shoe when entering the polling station. They received the matching right shoe after the votes were counted and provided the sponsors were happy with the results. Today, interested parties fork out cash in lieu of photos taken in the voting booth. That’s why mobile phones and cameras are not permitted there.) The photograph of a ballot is a snapshot of history in the making. The fact that it’s illegal makes the photograph a much more valued trophy, even if there isn’t a direct compensation for the vote. Look at me, I voted, and I voted for Obama. I’m as cool as he is. I am even willing to do something illegal to show you how cool I am.
Soon after the polling stations closed people gathered around TVs, either in front of small screens at their homes or in front of large screens in public space. And they took photographs of these screens. The moment when the line „Barack Obama elected president“ appeared on CNN, thousands of people pressed the buttons of their digital cameras. Look at this, this is a historic moment, and I witnessed the historic moment. Here’s my picture. I also witnessed when Jesse Jackson’s and Oprah Winfrey’s eyes started to leak. It was on TV, I saw it, and I even took a snapshot of this historic moment. You find it on Flickr.
In the morning of 5th November, newspapers were sold out in many cities although publishers had printed a generous supply of extra copies. A copy of the paper with the historic headline can be a desirable trophy even in the age of Internet. We better save a copy for the grandchildren. Before (or maybe even instead of) reading, people took photographs of their papers and posted them on Flickr. People who didn’t manage to get a copy of the paper took photos of sold out newsstands. Copies of The New York Times were for sale on eBay at US $200 and more. No market for screen shots, photos on Flickr for free, thousands of them. You find photos of the cover of The New York Times as well as that of a tiny provincial paper in Germany, not to forget the one from Kenya.
One day later, The Guardian initiated the project „A Message for Obama“, inviting people to convey messages to the president-elect through photographs: „Write your message on a bit of paper … Take a picture … Add it to the group“ ( Hundreds of messages were added to this pool, congratulations, questions, affirmative and disapproving notes, you name it. The comments to many of the pictures published there provide an interesting insight into modern forms of public discussion including the activities of the inevitable weirdos, trolls, and dim-wits. The presence of the aforementioned pictures suggests that Obama is the cool guy on Flickr, some of the photos in this group and the comments show us that not everybody agrees.
A selection of these photos was published as a print-on-demand book, obtainable only through the printers‘ website but not in bookshops. The news about this book was published while I wrote this article. Again, the use of technology perfectly matches the image, even if the choice isn’t made by Obama’s team this time. Print-on-demand is modern and cool. It’s the technology of the Internet age. I guess by the time this magazine is printed the first photos of the book and of people holding their copies will be seen on Flickr. Just like everything else.
Oh, er, two more things: No, I am not on the payroll of Flickr. And yes, the Sarah „Vampire“ Palin poster is on Flickr, too. Not the photo I took but hundreds of photos showing the poster throughout the country. There’s one taken on the same day when I took mine, showing the poster at the very same location. It may be the one we talked about. Good luck, young lady.

Joachim Schmid
November 2008

Published in DAMn°20, Brussels, December 2008

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