Obama Hope Portrait
Artist: Shepherd Fairey
Medium: not available
Citation: not available
Rights Holder: not available
Engage! Theme: American Dreams
Graphic designer and illustrator Shepard Fairey is a self-proclaimed street artist, often borrowing images from popular culture and transforming them graphically as subversive comments about mass media and corporate marketing. He plays on the familiarity of images in order to express his political and social views. Fairey’s work is not confined to the fine-art museum, but is more often found on the Internet and on T-shirts, free posters, and stickers pasted guerilla-style all over a neighborhood or city.
During the campaign leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Fairey wanted to use his art to support Democratic candidate Barack Obama. When he decided to produce a poster for Obama, he turned again to pre-existing imagery, this time searching on Google for a news photograph of the then-senator. He found an Associated Press picture taken of Obama and actor George Clooney at a 2006 panel discussion about the genocide in Darfur.
Fairey did not obtain permission from the Obama campaign to produce the poster, which he disseminated in his usual grassroots fashion. Soon after its initial release, however, the campaign contacted Fairey and asked him to create an official campaign version of the poster, which was released in February 2008. Hundreds of thousands of versions of the image, on both the official and unofficial posters, stickers, T-shirts, and electronic media were disseminated over the course of the campaign.
For the poster, Fairey cropped the original photo to focus in on Obama’s head and gaze, reduced the detail of lines and tones, and limited the colors to red, white, and blue, making it appear almost like a stencil. No longer is there any specific link to the context of the original photograph.
Additionally, Fairey added the word “HOPE” at the bottom (he originally used “PROGRESS” but the Obama campaign asked him to change it to “HOPE”) creating a symbolic link between the word and the man. The candidate seems to gaze, determined but hopeful, beyond us toward the future.
Explain to the group that many of us are already very familiar with this image and it’s historical context. We are going to try to break down our familiarity with the visual image itself and see what lies behind this iconic poster and our perceptions of it.
Spend some time looking at the image in silence. Write down an adjective or noun (besides “hope”) that you associate with the image. Set the word aside for the moment.
What can you say definitively about this man by looking at him in this portrait? Look at his pose and facial expression, his dress, and the space and colors that surround him. What evidence is available to you in the image alone?
Ask the group to share their words written earlier by saying them aloud. And, with each one, examine whether that word is specifically visible in the image. (For example, if someone says “presidential,” ask if there is any specific evidence of the American presidency in the image.)
Acknowledge that there is more meaning to this image than just what we see. It is hard to separate our additional knowledge of Obama and the presidential campaign from a red, white, and blue portrait of a man with the word HOPE written below his image.
This poster can be understood as a campaign promise of a hopeful American future. If the word “HOPE” were not included in the image, how might you understand that message? Does the image effectively communicate the idea of hope? Why or why not? (As above, ask the group to consider the position and gaze of the figure, the background or space around him, and the colors.)
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Like Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, Shepard Fairey’s image of Obama was widely disseminated to suggest a particular vision for America’s future. In fact, Fairey shared Obama’s political and social ideals for the nation, although he initially preferred the word “PROGRESS” for the poster and was asked by the Obama campaign to change it to “HOPE.” What is a word (or phrase) that embodies your personal dream for America? What colors do you associate with this word or phrase? Select one thing from your life (a portrait of yourself or of a friend or family member, a personal possession, a building or location you know well) that is a part of that dream. Make a simple outline drawing of this person, place, or thing and fill in areas with the colors you selected. Include your word or phrase somewhere on the page and then write a brief description of your American Dream poster.
Shepard Fairey has gotten into trouble with the law on a number of occasions when pasting his posters and stickers on public or private property*—he was mimicking the way our consumer culture puts advertising brands and logos in our faces all the time in an effort to manipulate us. Can you think of examples of this kind of advertising? Fairey sees his work, and the legal troubles, as evidence of his civic engagement. Do you think this is civic engagement? Why or why not? How might you disseminate your American Dream poster or the message it embodies?
*It’s not clear whether Fairey was arrested in the distribution of any of the Obama images, but he has been sued for copyright infringement over his use of an Associated Press photograph of Obama to create his iconic poster.
Information about the copyright-infringement suit filed against Fairey by the Associated Press.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/ (Use the “search collections” function to locate the fine-art version of Fairey’s image).