U.S. President Barack Obama talks about Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5. (Mike Theiler/Reuters) U.S. President Barack Obama talks about Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

Want to know the real meaning of that selfie incident involving President Obama and two other world leaders in South Africa? That moment, writes Associated Press (AP) vice president and director of photography Santiago Lyon, represents the “democratization of image making that is a hallmark of our gadget-filled, technologically rich era.”

And one other thing, too, writes Lyon in a New York Times op-ed:

Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, is the way Mr. Obama’s administration — in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on — has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.

That’s all a reference to the White House transparency issue of the moment. On Nov. 21, 38 news organizations and associations — essentially the U.S. mainstream media — sent a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney protesting access limitations placed on news photographers. The letter referenced a number of events to which independent photographers were barred and included this zinger: “The restrictions imposed by the White House on photographers covering these events, followed by the routine release by the White House of photographs made by government employees of these same events, is an arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference on
legitimate newsgathering activities. You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.”

The National Journal recently put together a side-by-side comparison of journalism photos of President Obama and official photos taken by White House photographer Pete Souza. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said the official photos are “closer to propaganda than to journalism.” Gawker’s Tom Scocca wondered if it’s all such a big deal, arguing that the gripe is that the White House won’t let the media take favorable shots of the president.

Whatever the stakes, Lyon’s closing line in the New York Times op-ed piece expresses the hope that regular old news consumers get as angry about all of this as Beltway journos: “Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.”

In a quick chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Lyon acknowledged the need to educate the public on photo access. “Because photography is a visual medium, people will sometimes concentrate on the picture and not concentrate as much on who takes the picture, what’s the agenda and so on,” he said. The key, said Lyon, is accuracy — capturing “the elected president of a democratic country discharging his official duties.”