The opportunity to exercise this control means that the president’s staff can pick what the only public image will show, down to the president’s body language. In the photo documenting his diplomatically touchy meeting with the Dalai Lama, Obama offered no smile. When signing yesterday’s executive order, Obama looked dutiful, but not overjoyed.
Susan Walsh, an AP photographer who was president of the WHNPA during their successful effort to curtail the handouts under Bush, worries that the Obama administration’s regular dissemination of handout photos from events that could easily be opened to pool or other photographers is permanently eroding independent photographic access at the White House.
In 2005, the WHNPA won the support of the managers of the AP photo wire services, who agreed not to distribute the official photos except in the rarest circumstances. This gave their campaign significant leverage—if the president wanted newspapers across the country to have a visual record of his actions, he would have to allow press photography.
But this White House essentially runs its own photo wire via its Flickr feed, which mixes the photo releases with behind the scenes fly-on-the-wall style shots that are the more traditional remit of White House staff photographers, and that few, if anyone, objects to. Anyone can download and republish its photos free of charge. (The White House has even claimed that it’s better to do a photo release than to “restrict” access to “a limited group of photographers”—i.e. a pool made up of media professionals.)
“The genie is out of the bottle,” says Walsh. “Any administration will see the benefit of being able to control their own content. The technology has made it so it’s really easy to put images out there. And you know what? It’s a great strategy for them. You’re never going to get them to stop it. “
Sachs is frustrated that the WHNPA’s continued complaints aren’t getting any traction, either with the White House or with news outlets that continue to disseminate the official photos.
“We won the access under the Bush administration,” laments Sachs. “And it has been taken away under the Obama administration.”