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Feb 24, 2007

Couple Questions


I was interested in the shot which accompanies Howard Fineman's latest Newsweek piece, The Couples Campaign - link.

Ostensibly, it introduces us to Michelle Obama and raises the subject of couples as political partnerships.  Would we be seeing this image, however, if Maureen Dowd hadn't set off a Geffen - Clinton flame war, while accusingly referring to Hillary's campaign as "Clinton Inc.?"  At this point, one has to wonder if Fineman's piece is now part of a bandwagon effect, looking to keep up the questions, at the innuendo level, about Bill's role in Hillary's (or, is it their?) campaign.

Given the candidate lacking a head, Michelle's proximity, and the spouse monitoring things more closely than the handler (if that's what the guy on the left happens to be), we have the image of the spouse as the ultimate political player. Given the theme of the article, it seems like we're also prompted, at least on one level, to imagine Hillary standing in Barack's place, and Bill -- suddenly materialized -- measuring Hilary's ever gesture and word.

Whether you have reactions to the political context, thoughts on this odd portrait of the Obamas or specific comments about this introduction to Michelle Obama, I was wondering what you read.

(image: Scout Tufankjian / Polaris for Newsweek.  February 26, 2007.


I read it as an insult. The photograph snapped from behind the stage says 'why bother to give these insignificant people a proper introduction?' Plus there's the innuendo of her position below him - every man's fantasy. It's a picture that disrespects the subjects and the viewers, and should not have been published. What kind of photos did the other couples get?

The camera is such a neutral instrument for such devastating purposes. Political camerawork is comandeered by "artists" who have a beef with the whole electioneering theatre, as they get to see the in between moments when politicians let down their guard, as when they are "off the stage." I don't necessarily find it insulting that Obama's wife is so intent on her husband's speech. Her face may be reflecting the content of the message he is giving. I have never seen her before this picture, but I'm intrigued at how beautiful she is. I would like to see them together, to see how they mesh as a couple in informal circumstances, with their guard down.

I see a lot of tension in Michelle Obama.

Look at her hands grasped tightly together. She could crack walnuts with that grip.

Look at her face. I think her mouth is naturally sort of tight from what I remember seeing of her before, but that mouth is just as full of tension as her hands.

Look at her eyes. She is drilling holes in the man she is looking at, presumably her husband.

If someone were to touch her unexpectedly, she would launch into the stratosphere.

Overall, I get the impression of a woman who is simultaneously behind her husband's ambition to ascend to the land's highest office and terrified that it might actually happen. Or of what might happen on the way.

In short, she does NOT look happy.

her colors are terrible. Black people are beautiful. If the colors on this shot are true to the published version, it almost looks like they photoshopped her face. Since we have GIS it's easy enough to look for photos to compare.

check it out: she looks normal here:

and has a natural, healthy glow here:

and even in this unposed, casual shot, where she's awkwardly caught and badly lit as she's climbing some stairs, she looks like a normal black woman:

and contrast all of these with the publicity head-shot posted here:

she looks like a model in that last one. And never mind that she's a rock star in her own right, as the winningworkplaces site so aptly discusses.

In contrast, the shot that Newsweek runs with makes her look like Geena Davis in heavy blackface. Newsweek should be ashamed- what a bunch of jerks.

This is an extremely unflattering picture of Michelle Obama. If it weren't for the hairstyles of the men, I would think this was a very old picture; her hairdo and clothes look like they're from the 1960s. Her hair is a little disheveled; she doesn't look happy... whoever chose this photo wasn't trying to do her any favors.

This is just a terrible picture of both of them. With that high polish of his shoes, and her so low beneath him, it is an image of a domineering man -- not even personal, just dominion. All the black they are wearing, the oddly retro style of her clothes and hair, and the subservience -- it suggests something third world about them. Even nation of Islam. Now let's compare it to the recent picture of the Clintons, with Hillary "just a beautiful woman in the arms of her loving husband", the picture that many here were cooing over.

Johanna, I almost wrote that I wondered whether she was worried about him being assassinated, especially since this was taken around the anniversary of Malcolm X's assassination, and it reminds me of that era. I felt weird bringing up the possibility, so I deleted that part. But it's interesting that you bring up the Nation of Islam association... I wonder if associations between Obama and Muslims are going to be regularly be used to smear him.

I think the assassination fears are well founded, and I think she looks and is worried. If an Obama presidency begins to look like a viable reality, a whole lot of Bubbas are gonna lose their sh---, um, I mean, composure.

Michelle has on a nice classy black outfit and a lovely necklace, but OMG what's with the hair? Complete with little 1950s commas on either side. Eeeek. And she is surrounded by calm, relaxed white men while she looks very apprehensive. As the others have said, very unflattering, but why?

Usually they have many photos of an event to select from, and they seem to have chosen the one that makes her look emotional and a little bit ugly. The reader will think, is this woman First Lady material? And conclude, probably not.

Ummabdullah...."associations between Obama and Muslims will be regularly used to smear him".

Haven't they already started that? Excpect it to ramp up by a factor of about a million if he actually becomes the candidate. Being accused of attending a "madrassah" will be the least of his worries.

I'm sorry, but I really think it's one of the reasons he cannot win. Many Americans find something a little un-American about people who are well traveled, cosmopolitan, and who attended elementary school in a different country. Gosh darn it, I bet he even speaks a foreign language! How Eurotrash of him.

Kerry redux, but with a middle name of "Hussein" thrown in. Fox news hog heaven.

I wondered a spell ago about Obama's wife and had to hunt to find a picture of her. On his Senate homepage, where other senators have the usual familyman photo, no pictures of Michelle were to be found. It made me wonder if she was shy or if, perhaps, she was a considered a campaign liability, as Theresa Heinz Kerry was considered a liability to John Kerry.

So I find this a fascinating picture.

White American really like Obama--he is a brilliant orator and what he says inspires us. We are willing to overlook his lack of executive experience because the vision of "American" that he presents--in his speeches and in his person--is so compelling. He is a man not just of the dominant culture (which used to be synonymous with "white," but no more) but--through his African father--of the world.

But how far are white Americans willing to go? Obama's wife is not a mixed race kid with a funny name. She is from Chicago, and she has deep American roots. In a nation in which Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush are regarded as ideal first ladies, I wonder if the electorate is ready for an African American first lady? Someone as accomplished as Hillary, as stylish as Jackie O, but black?

In this picture, I think she looks stunning. She looks powerful, committed, and she looks really African American: In-your-face-white-America African American. The hair, the pearls, the eyes, the expressiveness. I love the fact that the camera shows Obama from the knees down--as if the photographer was trying to ask if we REALLY know who we are seeing when we look at Obama? I'm fairly confident that Michelle Obama will make many white Americans squirm. They're not racist, see...but, but, something about this picture....somehow it is unflattering...of her...of him. Or is it because THIS is our implicit idea of The First Lady.

So I this intended to cool enthusiasm for Obama? Could it be from people who support the Bill-Hillary juggernaut? Here's a tidbit: Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post, the same folks who printed the Obama swimsuit edition.

Nice sturdy shoes.

Here's a more interesting profile of Obama with some on his wife & family.

I think this picture is communicating:

"You might like Obama, because he's not "really" black, but his wife is definitely a NEGRO, so you might want to reconsider your support of him."

I think it's trying to appeal to the Boomers' parents crowd, for whatever reason, and all American racists.

I find it appalling.

Comng back and reading all the comments above makes me realize how we respond to pictures: all over the place with reactions. If this picture was meant to elicit one reaction, it failed.

It also broke open the ambivalence about electing a black man and first lady, even from people at this web site, who are, for the most part, apparently open-minded. What is the world is everybody afraid of? It gets back to the question I raised some time ago, when Bag was dissecting Hillary's images: why can't we see people as human first.Every perception should begin with our universal commonality. The rest is "fluff."

margaret: I didn't mean to express ambivalence. I'm a relatively well-to-do 30-yr-old white male. I think Obama is the best of the bunch right now. I can also name 5 black women who I think of as "attractive" off the top of my head- and I don't think I'm unusual in that respect for my age and race.

But in this age of digital photography, I know as well as the next guy that some pictures are good, and some are not so good. No matter how many Crest WhiteStrips you use, sometimes the lighting or the angle will make your teeth look yellow, or your neck look fat, or the shadow from the wall behind you will make you look like you're a hunchback. A momentary reflection that would disappear in a real-life encounter or even in a video is frozen forever in a still, and something you might not even notice when it happens in real life can become the focal point of the photo. Most people go ahead and just toss the bad pictures...

Which is why I think this picture is such bulls41t, clear evidence of malice on the part of Newsweek. They took a picture of Barak's wife that made her look... sorta ugly. Very high contrast (shiny) cheekbones, harsh dark shadow under her chin, somehow the pink of her lips blended into the darker brown of the rest of her face. If I shot that photo, I wouldn't have used it, as long as I had a better one. I'm willing to bet that Newsweek pays its camera guys pretty well, and I bet this photog shot about 300 pictures during this event. If this is the best photo they shot of her, I'm a turnip.

It's not a dramatic effect. It's a lousy photo, becuase it's not an accurate depiction of its subject. We're talking about a very attractive woman, but you wouldn't know it from looking at Newsweek. I'll post this again, and try to make it clickable this time:
Newsweek doesn't want you to see her like this

That Obama guy has legs and everybody looks up to him.

Definitely his wife Michelle looks like something out of a 1960s magazine. Except for the hairstyle, I'd say the clothes style reminds me of Jackie Kennedy on the campaign trail.

She does look worried and drawn.

My perspective is slightly different having watched Obama speak here in Seattle as well as watching he and his lovely wife on Oprah. This pix is more a condemnation of MSM and Newsweek in particular - they are trying to thwart what is probably the best thing to happen to presidential politics since Kennedy won.

I agree that the colors are all wrong, and it makes her look patchy and just dark. This is a very unflattering photo, and the evident tension doesn't help.

the BAG: "specific comments about this introduction to Michelle Obama,"

Talk about "the eye of the beholder" and breaking things open! One context for this picture is that for weeks now, a conversation has been occuring on whether Obama is "Black." Here we discuss a vérité picture of Barack Obama's wife that a major American newsmagazine chose to print. She looks African American, and she looks tense. No one is going to question whether SHE is black enough for black America.

Some people think it is a negative, unflattering, portrait. Some of us wonder how the prospect of a black FLOTUS will affect support for Obama. Some people pick up on sexual overtones--domineering man? My husband's comment, glancing over my shoulder as I read the article, was "everyone in the room is looking at that man's penis." (He didn't know who the picture was of.) Some people worry that Obama is at high risk of assassination.

We know from research on social cognition is that seeing an African American face, even subliminally, prompts automatic, unconscious responses that are more aggressive & anxious in both whites and blacks. Research on the social consequences of skin color find that African Americans with physical characteristics that are more "white"--light skin, straight hair, thin nose and lips--are more likely to be described as beautiful, enjoy more social benefits, and more likely to be pictured in ads.

And is this wrong? As far as psychologists and geneticists have been able to tell, the preference for people who look like us is hardwired in our genes, a universal evolutionary adaption, regardless of whether you are white, black, yellow, red, brown or green. So if white people have a preference for whitish or blackish people, they are being human. The racism part starts when people who have power also start justifying discrimination against people who are not "like us," rationalize both aggression and neglect, and perpetuate false and humiliating stereotypes to deny the "not us" resources, opportunities, civil rights, human dignity and integrity.

margaret scolds us for that wondering whether Michelle Obama will discourage some white support for Barack Obama. She preaches to the choir:"Every perception should begin with our universal commonality. The rest is "fluff." I always appreciate margaret's insightful comments but perhaps this time her longing for a society that judges people "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" overlooks reality? Imho, the only way we can achieve that social goal is by making the implicit explicit. If American society does not look its fears directly in the face, if we do not shine the light on those unconscious and automatic assumptions, we will not move forward.

A year ago people were wondering if America was ready for an African American president. Now Obama is running and he has at least 40% of the population excited. Today, after considering whether Obama is black enough, clean and articulate enough, we are moving on to consider the question of whether America is ready for an African American first lady.

It really is exciting. For the first time in 30 years, at least some Americans are starting to talk about race again, in new ways. I have to thank the BAG for doing what he does to make that conversation possible. And I'm grateful to Newsweek as well for providing grist.

Sorry for the long post, btw.

*If margaret gets to preach, I get to cite. One useful article on this topic is Fears, LM. (1998). Colorism of black women in news editorial photos. Western Journal of Black Studies, 22, 30-36.

PTate in FR: You are right, I do tend to "preach." It's because I'm an "old crone" and that's what we do, sometimes. I fully realize what Newsweek and others are doing. That was the point of my first post. I guess I am just disgusted with manipulation of image for bad effect like the rest of you all. By the way, I thought Mrs.Obama was beautiful, in spite of the unflattering portrait. And her "flip" hairdo doesn't bother me. She's black and she beautiful, and probably a whole lot more, to attract a man of the substance of her husband. I only think that when people got their impressions of candidates from the newspapers and public speeches before the visual media numbed our ability to think about content instead of image, that this democracy was a lot better off....but, then, again, maybe, that's because I'm old enough to remember. Also, I did myself a favor 11 years ago: I gave away my TV and stopped subscribing or reading news magazines. (Sort of like Andre, in the movie, "My Dinner With Andre."

This picture is so unusual in its composition and tone, that reactions to it can't be taken as a guide to how someone might react to the prospect of a black president or first lady. And while I agree that people on an instinctive level might gravitate toward those most like them, you underestimate how many people (non-black) will be happy to vote for an African American, pleased with it as another sign that we are moving toward the ideal of equality.

margaret: " And her "flip" hairdo doesn't bother me. She's black and she beautiful"

I agree 100%. My reaction to this photo was that Michelle Obama is a very beautiful woman. I didn't even think it was unflattering. I'm astonished that people are commenting on her hairdo, that they think its dated. I long for the day when people will be judged not by the style of their hair, but by the content of their character...

Here's a pretty picture of Senator & Mrs Obama.

My other reaction was to suddenly see Sen Obama & hs wife in the same league as John & Jackie Kennedy, the queen of the flip hairdo. Wow.

ummabdulla, your point is not that weird, in fact I heard that she has brought up the fear of assassination in a conversation with a reporter/interviewer. But undoubtedly the right is trying to smear him with Islamic associations. And that's out in the open; what's hidden obviously is the racial issue. Perhaps that is too blatant to be spoken even by the right swiftboaters.

I heard someone say today that they had attended a local speech by Obama and his wife spoke first (did the 'warm-up'?) and she was totally captivating, intelligent and warm, according to this reporter. As others have mentioned, she is a beautiful woman. So why this photo? I think the entire purpose of this picture was to demean her. It's a terrible photo and makes her look like she's been 'through the wringer' on the campaign trail. And his shoes, so polished they look like patent leather tap shoes. Oh, maybe that's the point. That li'l black boy is gonna dance.

The more I think about this, the angrier I get.

And another point. We have a history in this country of promoting to higher positions black women and not black men, because a black woman is less threatening to white males, who still do almost all of the promoting in the business world. This photo seems to be an intentional effort to destroy our comfortability with Michelle Obama before we even get to know her.

Btw, margaret, I'm also an old crone....

From PTate in FR

"As far as psychologists and geneticists have been able to tell, the preference for people who look like us is hardwired in our genes, a universal evolutionary adaption, regardless of whether you are white, black, yellow, red, brown or green."

Cite? I do not think this is true.

In the the print version of Newsweek magazine sent to my home the image is quite a bit smaller, probably half or one-third in size, and it is square rather than widescreen like the one posted at the Bag. It's cropped on both sides, is located centrally on the page, and its colors come through just as they have here on the screen.

The couples story sits next to one about Obama's smoking habit and effort to quit.

I have a friend who is running for a position in Los Angeles in March. His wife worries that she is being too critical and worried about how he looks, what he says, how he is perceived. He knows he needs her to be his most supportive and critical critic and that is how they have always worked together on projects.

I view this image of Michelle as THE person Barack turns to for the most important answers.

Guys - don't you realize that retro hairdos are stylish?
Score one for Michelle Obama to wear that hair, rather than have it wear her.

And... that picture is awful. The Bag is right, they went out of their way to make her look bad.

Oh, and readytoblowgasket - I think the reason we're thinking white (Jackie Kennedy) is because she was First Lady. Or, we could be racist. You decide!

sravana, thanks for working so hard on thinking outside the box. So, racism aside, are you and others saying Americans won't vote for someone whose *wife* looks "bad"? I don't understand why it matters if Newsweek goes out of "their" way to "make" Michelle Obama look good *or* bad. There is no cause-effect relationship here. The BAG's original premise is weak (probably because the Newsweek article is weak and the photo doesn't really hook to it editorially). Furthermore, I'd bet cash money that this photograph has nothing to do with Maureen Dowd's interview with David Geffen (as The BAG suggests it might).

As you know, it's always incredibly valuable -- both for context and backstory -- to hear from the photographer of a particular image. Last night, Scout Tufankjian, the photographer who took this photo of Michelle Obama, wrote me about the shot and also addressed some of the questions that came up. (By the way, she's been enjoying the site for some time, and I greatly appreciate her writing.)

I quote (or paraphrase):

As the photographer who took the image of Michelle and Barack Obama, and a frequent reader of your blog, I just wanted to address a few of the comments that were made here ... mostly because people were guessing at my intentions, and that is something that I can address.

Obviously, I can't speak for the editors or their motivations, but for myself, the reason I took and sent this image (along with two other very similar ones), is that I found the depth of Mrs. Obama's attentiveness deeply fascinating.  Rather than zoning out with a smile, she (seemed at least) to give her deep and completely undivided attention to a speech that she has undoubtedly heard elements of many times before.  He, in turn, referenced her at several points within the speech (referring to her at one point as "tougher" and "smarter" than he was) and glanced over at her many times, as if to determine her reaction to his words.  It was the intensity of her attention and their intellectual bond that I found interesting.  This was the intention behind the photograph, rather than any attempt to make her look bad or to make any sort of comment about race.

As for other comments, I was not standing behind the stage, as there was no front/back. It was a small (maybe a foot or so high) riser in the middle of a crowded gym that he paced back and forth across.  I don't know if the gym (which had green walls) can help explain the color (which is not nearly that magenta on my monitor), but I assure you (again) that neither race nor a desire to make her look bad factored into it.  The white guys behind and beside her (who are supporters, incidentally, not handlers) actually came out worse than she did.  Finally, this particular photograph was taken over a week before (on the evening after his announcement) and ran in Newsweek several days before the Maureen Dowd article, so I doubt that the two are related.

I appreciate Scout's explanation, but it's interesting to note that that's not how the picture comes across when we don't have any context for it. Now I see that she is very attentive, but she also looks sort of terrified.

I saw another one on the photographer's website that showed the same scene and probably made the same point, but Michelle Obama looked a lot better in it. (I really enjoyed looking through the photos on that website, too.)

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