Interview: Christopher Morris talks about his videos of the American presidents

Obama’s Burden from Christopher Morris on Vimeo.

You probably already know Christopher Morris‘ work. One of the founding members of VII, his conflict photography is unparalleled and his recent work on American politics, including the book “My America,” has redefined visual coverage of the White House. You might not know that Morris has been making videos in addition to his still coverage of American politics. Emotionally resonant and forceful, these videos look like none others produced in the 5DMarkII-fueled push toward moving images in photojournalism. The videos resemble Morris’ still work, but their use of music, black and white imagery, and tone make them something altogether different.  He’s released four videos, all worth watching:

  • The Dear Leader
  • The New Leader
  • Obama’s Burden (embedded at the top of this post)
  • Obama’s War
  • Christopher Morris recently started a thread on lightstalkers to discuss his videos, and the response was varied. Make sure to read through that thread. The discussion there is interesting and touched on many aspects of Morris’ video work not covered in this interview (if you don’t have a lightstalkers account, email me), and I thought Morris’ videos would be a great subject for one of our periodic interviews here at dvafoto. I was delighted when Morris agreed to the interview. The discussion, conducted over email, is below. Our questions are in bold, followed by Morris’ full responses. If you’re reading on the front page, be sure to click through to the post to see the full interview.

    dvafoto: What are you showing us with the videos? When “Dear Leader” first came out, the title (equating Bush with Kim Jong Il) and the tone and the video itself suggested to me a critical portrayal of the previous administration. Now seeing a similar tone in the Obama videos, it strikes me that you aren’t focusing directly on the man in the office, but the office itself and its theater and cultural baggage.

    Christopher Morris: I’m showing you what I feel. Each one of these has a very distinct clear meaning for me. As for the viewer? That’s something I’m not quite sure of. This is the beauty of this whole process. They are whatever you want them to be.

    I seem to remember you speaking or writing about what would become “My America” as appealing both to the Bush administration’s supporters and detractors. From the same photos, one side saw images of patriotism and strong leadership, while the other saw demagogy, jingoism, and blind, wrong-headed faith in a politician. Have you gotten the same reaction from your videos? From your coverage of Obama? How do you feel about this emotional ambiguity? is it your goal?

    Each one of these short films has a distinct meaning for me. I know exactly what I’m trying to convey, what mood and emotion I’m trying to bring out of the viewer in each one of these… The exciting thing about the whole process though… is the emotion that I may want to convey… will actually with some, be the complete opposite or even something that I’ve never even thought of.

    Your lightstalkers thread called your videos “experiments,” why are they experiments? Will they become more than an experiment for you? What got you started shooting video? How do you fit in the video shooting with the stills and deadlines? What influenced the style of your videos?

    Here I’ll give a short synopsis of each of the Obama works and how they really came about. The first one I did was “The New Leader“. I didn’t wake up and think oh I’m going to make a statement about the Presidency today. It really started as I was sitting in the balcony of Capitol Hill while the President was about to step out to address the Nation on his Health Care Reform. I had been loaned one of the new Canon 7d’ cameras to test the day before. So literally 5 minutes before he came out, I decided to attempt to shoot some video of him at the start. Still images from a balcony 100 feet away of someone walking down the center aisle really do not make for great photography. So why now shoot video instead.. Later the next day when I put the clips into my laptop. I was stunned, with the whole quality and the mood of the images. In the next few day’s the President left for Wall Street to make an address on the Economy in New York. Basically here is a man that is trying to sell the nation on Health Care, the Economy, the War. The urgency of everything. This is what I’ve attempted to convey in “The New Leader” short.

    All of this was really just an experiment to test out the 7D. There were and still are many parts that should be edited out. This is why on returning to DC in November, my initial plan was to attempt to record some more clips of the President to re-edit into the film. Then on Veterans Day, Obama was to visit Arlington National Cemetery and deliver a speech. This time using the Canon 5D, I basically shot non-stop from the moment the motorcade left the White House until it returned. Right away during the drive I could sense how visually stunning the motorcade footage was, with the added historical importance of the President’s visit, and that this couldn’t be edited into my earlier video. It would stand on its own [“Obama’s Burden“]. What struck me is that roughly 10 cars in front of me is the President in his limousine looking out at the constant and never ending tombstones of our war dead.

    And then in December, Obama was to fly to West Point to address the nation on his decision regarding Afghanistan. Hence, “Obama’s War.” The choice of the music here is really interesting. What I do, is while playing one of the clips, I will cycle through some songs to see if anything fits the mood I’m attempting to convey. Having already downloaded some music files from, I had something in mind. By mistake I inadvertently played this Russian folklore song called Jolly Talk, by DrevA. For me it was perfect, here was this Russian voice taunting us with her simple words. Taunting us, for now it was our turn to send our young cadets to Afghanistan. The same thing Russian cadets were doing 30 years before. As for the images of the C5A cargo plane, they were shot the same night at an Air Force base near West Point. They are from the window of the helicopter as we taxied for take-off. For me they represented the planes that would carry the young cadets to war. They had almost this coffin like quality to them.

    Errol Morris looks at George W. Bush

    Errol Morris takes a page from BagNewsNotes in his latest New York Times blog post about the visual record of George W. Bush’s presidency. Morris has a history of photographic deconstruction on his NYT blog, and but this differs in that, rather than forensic investigation, he asks the heads of Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, to show and discuss the images they feel best represent the character of Bush and his administration in the over the past 8 years. Vincent Amalvy (AFP), Santiago Lyon (AP), and Jim Bourg (Reuters), choose a lot of the usual suspects: there’s Bush watching Hurricane Katrina’s damage from an airplane, hearing about the World Trade Center attacks, and standing on the rubble at Ground Zero. But in addition to seeing the differences between the 3 agencies’ takes on the same situations, there’s some discussion on the nature of covering a president, how these photos come about, and what they mean. Midway through the piece, Errol Morris also happens upon a very crucial point in modern politics: photographs have the power to define public figures more than just about anything else.

    Bush, at his final press conference, was asked if he regretted something; it’s that regret question. And when Bush said he regretted “Mission Accomplished,” it was as though what he regretted was the photograph. Regret that this photograph had made him look bad, had compromised his public image.”

    Santiago Lyon of the AP, continuing the thread, mentions the so-called “Turf Builders” in the Reagan administration:

    There were the “Turf Builders,” photographers who accompanied the White House advance teams in the Reagan era, sending one photographer to reconnoiter the photo opportunities on foreign presidential travel. They visited the scenes where the president was going to be photographed and took notes on the locations and distances to assist the photographers who would later travel with the president. They produced a guide that told you what lens to use and what the light was going to be. They no longer do that, but I feel that the existence of such a procedure spoke to the orchestration of White House photo opportunities.”

    Two shoe salute

    Creator unknown - Bush ducks 2 shoes thrown during a press conference in Iraq

    As is being widely reported today, a credentialed journalist threw two shoes at outgoing US president George W. Bush during a press conference in Iraq yesterday. BagNewsNotes has the usual interesting analysis, with a nod toward previous shoes hurled at politicians in Iraq. The New York Times has another video of the incident from an angle different from the animated gif above. As one commenter on metafilter notes, Bush’s reaction is that of a man who has clearly had things thrown at him before.

    The symbolism of shoes being thrown may be lost on western viewers, though the meaning is being widely reported. The above video, from Iraq in 2003, shows a man defiling a banner of Saddam Hussein with his shoes. I remember photos and video of kids attacking the fallen statue of Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, also, but can’t find those images. Getty has a typical picture of men attacking a statue with their shoes.

    New York Times, 14 Dec 2008 - AFP photo by Saul Loeb - Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, tried to block President Bush when a man threw his shoes at the president during a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday.

    I’m particularly struck by the photo chosen by the New York Times to lead their coverage. The photo by Saul Loeb of the AFP, shows Bush, blurry and indistinct, while Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki remains standing with arms outstretched. Here we have an Iraqi, standing tall and staying the course, protecting the American.