Obama and the “Decisive Moment” in Photography

Let’s get presidential.

As we get close to the end of Obama’s term, we see how he appears down to earth and personable through countless photographs of him visiting other countries, or how hospitable he is towards visitors at the White House. There is a lot of coverage and attention from the media when Barack Obama makes an appearance in the public eye. The remarkable thing about the captures of Obama is the impeccable timing of the genuine moments that he has showcased in his interactions with various kinds of people. Pete Souza is the Chief Official White House Photographer who manages to capture the president as vivacious and friendly in those particular genuine moments.

It has been said before and time again, that photography is about timing, and pressing down the shutter button at the right moment can provide natural results. Souza does this justice in the capture below where the Obamas share an intimate moment in January 2009. I always think about the placement of the photographer and how observant they have to be to constantly be on the look out to document everything. Is there a sense of anticipation or an intuitive instinct to know when to press down the shutter? Or, is it just by chance or fluke that the genuine moment appeared in front of your lens?

From The Guardian, “The Obamas share a joke in a lift on inauguration night January 2009”

From The Guardian, “The Obamas share a joke in a lift on inauguration night January 2009”

In photography theory, there is something called “The Decisive Moment”, where a photographer from the past named Henri Cartier-Bresson managed to label the precise moment that reflects the significance of an event. Cartier-Bresson argues that composition is formed from an event that is not staged and is captured in a spontaneous, candid motion where it tells a story. The event itself is an act of expression where a subject would fit a scene. Souza demonstrates this in his work by placing the importance of the environment by highlighting normalized events where a president would not traditionally be in.

From the Guardian, “The president shows his fun side”

From the Guardian, “The president shows his fun side”

Obama is great with children. He is a family man by the looks of it in several captures by Souza. He is not in solitary confinement in the White House as he interacts with children that visit and he runs through the halls like it is his personal home. He makes everyone feel like they matter and that he is not arrogant or above others, as he provides his undivided attention to everyone in his environment. An Obama sense of contact is an impacting sense of engagement. In the photo below with a young girl from Colombia, Obama appears sincere and loving as he looks into her eyes. He breaks barriers where he allows the ideal of the president being more accessible become a reality. He listens to every person and sees the reality of every issue as he visits each country.

Obama appears photogenic and confident in the depictions of the captures and perhaps his “Decisive Moment” comes with specific actions. Each action that he follows through with has a positive reaction and correlation with the events that he is placed in. When the president of the United States visits another country, it is obvious that it is a matter of forming good connections with leaders and it is a huge media stunt. It showcases the need for good people in the world.

From the White House Blog “Greeting a young girl in Colombia, April 15, 2012”

From the White House Blog “Greeting a young girl in Colombia, April 15, 2012”


Pete Souza Website

“Photographing the real Obama” article from the Guardian

“The Decisive Moment”

Decoding the Decisive Moment (Academic Article)

The White House Website (Blog segment)


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