Callie Shell’s Photos Capture Obama’s Human Side

1 / 5
2 / 5
3 / 5
4 / 5
5 / 5

Feeling discouraged by the nasty partisan attacks of the presidential campaign? Overwhelmed and exhausted by politics in general? An antidote awaits in the form of Callie Shell’s photo essays.

Shell’s stunning series of photographs for Time magazine, following Barack Obama on the campaign trail from October 2006 to the present, have been circulating in the mainstream media for a while now. But they are worth all that attention–in fact, they deserve several thorough viewings, for like a good book upon a second reading, they reveal new narratives and imagery with each look.

Despite Obama’s ubiquitous mediagenic charisma, not many photos or videos have succeeded in portraying him as an actual human being. (This is probably due in part to the messianic aura bestowed upon him by acolytes and detractors alike.) By gaining unprecedented access to the candidate over two long years, Shell captured Obama when no one else did–in the interstitial moments between photo ops. This is how she grants us rare glimpses of the candidate napping, eating an ice cream cone, or regrouping with his family just like any other father.

We get a glimpse of Obama’s frugality–not a quality often associated with politicians, especially former lawyers–in the worn soles of his shoes as he puts his feet up on a table. We get a shot of him at an Illinois rest stop in the early days of his campaign–striking for its juxtaposition of an extraordinary figure against a banal tableau. There are also new takes on the assured, tenacious candidate we know: his playful competitiveness as he hangs from a pull-up bar in a gymnasium, or the satisfied smile on his face just before taking the stage in Denver to accept his party’s nomination.

Even more poignant, however, are Shell’s images of the people who gather at Obama’s rallies. These are reaction shots in the purest sense: In one shot, tears streak the faces of two teenage girls in a South Carolina crowd. In another, a pair of young African-American boys wait in line to meet Obama. (Their grandmother told Shell, “Our young men have waited a long time to have someone to look up to, to make them believe Dr. King’s words can be true for them.”)

The campaign’s early days are marked by shots of Iowans mingling with Obama in diners and barns, while its final phases produce images of the man standing before staggering seas of people in Berlin and Denver.

Digital Journalist collects the images in chronological order, from the Illinois rest stop to the end of the DNC. The arrangement provides an uplifting, dignified chronicle of an election season that has too often been anything but.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.