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By now, almost everyone has seen the photo. President Obama, Hillary Clinton and the national security team sit in the Situation Room in the White House. There’s Obama, slumped down in a corner. There’s Clinton, hand over her mouth. According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, they’re all watching CIA director Leon Panetta give a play-by-play of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
The man behind the photo was Pete Souza, the official White House photographer and former Life and National Geographic contributor. By the time it was posted on the White House’s official Flickr account, the photo had exploded online and landed on the front pages of, among other newspapers, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
This story first appeared in the May 4, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Here, photography editors and designers explain why the picture is destined to be one for the history books:
Richard Turley, creative director, Bloomberg Businessweek
“I don’t think it’s something that you would look at as an incredible piece of photography, but as a moment of time captured, it’s very powerful.…It’s quite a human picture isn’t it: The way Obama kind of tucked himself into the corner, the body language on everyone.…It’s weight is in your own baggage of the picture, your own prior knowledge about what’s going on and what they’re looking at.”
Dora Somosi, director of photography, GQ
“It really is the two faces, between Obama’s intensity and Hillary Clinton’s surprise and shock, or whatever the hand covering the mouth is. That’s where your eye goes. She may not have had her hand over her mouth a second later, but [the photographer] did catch a moment. I think it’s about those two people and catching their unguarded reaction.…I think it’s further validated by the document that’s in front of Hillary that’s been wiped out a bit because it’s classified information. That makes you feel that you have an insider view.”
Kira Pollack, director of photography for Time
“The Hillary Clinton expression is the one that holds the photograph fully. The reaction of her hand over her face. Her eyes. Clearly, she’s reacting to something she’s watching. She’s very unaware she’s being photographed. To me, the whole image is about Hillary. In some ways, she holds the image. You look at her first, and then you look at everyone else. That instinctive reaction that must have happened for her hand to go over her mouth like that? There must be something powerful on that screen.…The other thing about this picture that we all find fascinating is that the document that is blurred. It’s one more element of what’s in that room. How extraordinary is it that we’re seeing inside that room?”
Scott Hall, director of photography, Newsweek
“What’s most interesting to me about this photo is what you’re not seeing. The mystery of what’s happening off camera is captured wholly in the expression on Hillary’s face. The events of 9/11 unfolded before our eyes, but those of 5/1 leave much to the imagination.”
Scott Dadich, former creative director, Wired
“It’s phenomenal, isn’t it? There’s nothing scripted about this photo. Everyone is purely focused on the matter at hand. And absorbing it, processing it. You can see 10 years of tension and heartache and anger in Hillary’s face. And the woman peeking over the guy’s shoulder? That’s to me the power of the moment. The cramming in. I don’t know who she is. But when you have the nexus of power in the Western world and who is that woman getting to peek in there and share this moment in history? I’m sure she is important but it feels like a stripping down of position here. Everyone is equal.”
Michelle McNally, assistant managing editor for photography, The New York Times
“It’s pretty simple. It’s just the intense expression on Obama and Hillary’s faces. You zoom right in on that. It’s historical obviously. It’s a tense period. You know what’s happening. They’re watching a video and your eyes are drawn to both of them and you’re internalizing it. You can only imagine what they’re looking at. It works a lot on your imagination. And then you’re thinking about what they’re seeing and it’s more intensely emotional as you look at it.…I have a tendency not to use the White House material. We like to use our own. But sometimes you have history in the making and you’re just not there.”