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HOPE, Barack Obama Poster | An Analysis

2428 words (10 pages) Essay in Cultural Studies

03/07/18 Cultural Studies Reference this

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In my term paper ”HOPE” the poster for Obama. I will analyze the Poster itself, this means to give an overview of what we can see and how we can interpret it as an art image and try to answer the questions why it went viral so fast and whether it had a huge impact on the outcome of the election campaign 2008. Since the poster by Shepard Fairey is a special kind of art, which can be describeb as Appropriation Art, I will also point out his message, as well as explain the meaning.

After that, I will start with the actual analysis, beginning with the idea and initiative and then showing the political goals and strategies the Democrats used during the election campaign, while keeping the message and vision of the image from Sheperd Fairey in mind, because these two points are unseperable, in view of the fact that the poster was made for this political occasion. It will be interesting to see the development, we will get know that Shepard Fairey was long before his actual HOPE poster a ”Obamanist”, sharing the same political views as Obama. Gradually, I will state out and interpret the image, for instance, why Fairey used actually this original head shot of Obama looking into the distance or why he switched to the ”HOPE” writing after all. Additionally, I will raise the question why the Democrats pushed such special image for this campaign, instead of maybe banning it. Plus characterize the effect of colors in general and what it could mean for this poster. Finally, I will compare Fairey’s iconic Poster to Jim Fitzpatrick’s worldwide known Che Guevara Poster from 1968.

Appropriation Art

The ”HOPE” Poster by Shepard Fairey can be described as Appropriation Art. Appropriation artists adopt images and add their own style to it, hence create a new art work (cf. Gersh-Nesic np.). Fairey also used an consisting image of Barack Obama, which was actually taken in Washington D.C. in 2006 (cf. Spiering np.), and then created his personal design based on the original. Most importantly the Appropriation artists want to make a new statement without loosing the impression of the original, this can also be called as “recontextualization” (cf. Gersh-Nesic np.). As one could imagine there is a thin line between Appropriation art and plagriasm, since the artist takes a consisting image or picture, whose rights may are arranged clearly, but nevertheless this can lead to copyright infringement or a legal dispute, as it is with Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster (cf. Fairey 7).


Nearly everyone knows or at least has seen the ”HOPE” poster by Shepard Fairey, which has become a symbol in the 2008 Election Campaign and beyond. The image is showing Barack Obama in three-quarters profile, focusing sharply into the distance, while wearing a suit. Across the bottom of the image the word ”HOPE” is written in bold letters and above the letter E there is the Obama/Biden logo (cf. author unknown np.). The poster is illustrated in a very simple color scheme, the dominating colors are blue ,red and white, the colors of the United States of America.

All began in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention, where Obama held a speech about ”uniting America and creating opportunities for everyone to prosper” (Fairey 7) , thereafter Fairey noticed that him and Obama share the same political views and because Fairey made art concerning political issues before, it was clear that he wanted to provide an artwork for Obamas presidential campaign also. So with the help from his friend Yosi Sergant, who got it all going, because he had contacts to the people from the Obama campaign, Fairey got permission two weeks before Super Tuesday to contribute a illustration (cf. Fairey 7). He came up with the iconic Obama Poster, which is actually based on a photograph taken in April 2006 by Manni Garcia (author unknown np.), the original photo showed Obama sitting next to George Clooney in Washington D.C. (cf. Spiering np.). Fairey transformed it into an abstract art image, which should:

capture his idealism, vision, and his contemplative nature, this last one of the most easily overlooked qualities that a strong leader embodies (7).

And he sure did, his eyes looking ahead, maybe to symbolize that he will take up future issues at an early stage, and expressing that ”I can guide you” (Booth pMO1) combined with the writing hope it gives a perfect association of Obamas idealism and vision, without loosing the seriousness a future president should have, since Obama is able to talk about challenging problems and inspire people at the same time (cf. Fairey 8). Additionally the poster is divided in the middle in a nationalistic way, only including the colors of the national flag of America, red, white and blue, a highlighted blue left side and a darker red side. On the one hand this could show the blue and red states, as in Democrats against Republicans and never ending antagonism between these two oppositions (cf. Fairey 7), on the other this could also sybolize a united America. Moreover, the colors used by Fairey, have also a strong psychological effect on the viewer, cause generally it is to mention that adults prefer blue as their favorite color (cf. Frieling and Auer 13), but more importantly the colors can influence our mind and feeling, for example blue is characteristic for constructiveness and depeening, however red can trigger the attitudes strongness and power in our minds (cf. Frieling and Auer 16), which can be translated to Fairey’s impression of Obama, by saying that his sincerity and leadership qualities should be expressed (cf. Fairey 7). Furthermore it is interesting to see that Fairey, not even a bit strive the point that Barack Hussein Obama could be the first African-American President of the United States of America (Nagourney np.), by making a appropriation art image that is showing Obamas skin color, but Fairey abstained, instead he shares the same ideals that Obama shared through his speeches ”that everyone is created equal, and is equally entitled to life”(Fairey 7).

First of all, it is to say that the initial 350 pieces that were put up on the streets and the next 350 sold all said ”Progress”. After that Fairey switched to the famous ”Hope” , because he got feedback and official approval from the Democrats claiming they want to spread the hope message (Arnon np.). As a matter of course the politicial slogans were hope and change (cf. Johnson 174) , so there was the thought of a strategic politcial move to back up and expand Obamas themes of the 2008 Electoral Campaign and give the people a unique way to show their support. Clearly the demand was not statisfied yet, so when Fairey uploaded his image on his website, where fans and supporters could get it, it went viral quickly, because the supporters ”started using the jpeg of my image as their email signature and their MySpace or Facebook profile image” (Fairey 8), this gave them the opportunity to show their support in a modern, symbolic way, and they were highly motivated to do so and spread the image (cf. Arnon np.). This could only be in favour of the Democrats, not only does more than fifty percent of the Americans use actually the internet in 2010 (Smith np.), but also thirty percent of the generation between 18-32 are active online, according to the study Generations Online in 2009 (Lachut np.). It should be added that just before Super Tuesday the image arouse the curiousity and maybe influenced the last undecided voters, or at least activated them to get more information about it (cf.Fairey 9). One might say, that the Poster helped also influence at least a bit the younger generation, sixty-six percent of the age group 18-29 voted for Obama, compared to the 30-45 from which fifty-two voted for him, it is a huge difference (CNN Exit Poll np). Additionally Faireys goal was to create an artwork that is attracting the younger generation, without loosing his own style.

All in All, it is to say that the image from Fairey is an idealization of Obama, the gazing look, the lines, colors and the fall of the light with brighter and darker sides (cf. Booth pMO1), he is shown almost like a messiah, because he has the abbility to influence people, through his monologues (Fairey 7). But since everything has to sides, there was also some critique to the artwork, writers for the Clout column in the Philadelphia Daily News said “the Soviet-style heroic Obama, the use of a single word HOPE” reminded them of George Orwell’s “1984” and Big Brother and in the Los Angeles Times Meghan Daum sees the image as:

a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality; (b) a controversial American figure who’s been assassinated; or (c) one of those people from a Warhol silkscreen that you don’t recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way. (MO1)

One might think that this would bother Fairey, but not if you are honoured by the future president himself. Obama wrote a letter thanking Fairey for his artwork supporting his campaign, further more he wrote that his work has a recondite impact on the people, regardless of the place where it can be seen (cf. Fairey 8). Not only that he got honoured by Obama, there is also a huge amount of parodies based on Faireys image. Most of them are illustrated in the same colors, but the decisive factor, which actually makes them a parody, is the writing. Instead of ”Hope”, there is written ”Pope” and Benedikt the XVI is shown (Weinfeld 3). Others versions include, John McCain and Sarah Palin with the writing ”Nope” in order to express their rejection (villagevoice 5 and 7). Additionally to these parodies, there of course several instructions in the internet on how to make your own Obama poster, plus there is a huge quantitiy of printed shirts, fliers available with the image (cf. Booth MO1).

Last but not least, it is to mention that there are several images comparable to the Fairey poster, but the most controversial would be with the Che Gueavara poster by Jim Fitzpatrick, which is also known as “Guerrillero Heroico” (the heroic fighter). This poster can also be described as appropriation art, since the image is also based on a photograph, this time taken by Alberto Korda, Fidel Castro’s personal photographer, in 1960 at a mass funeral in Havana. The original shot, similar to the one Fairey used, showed also another man and palm fonds (cf. Holmes np). Che Guevara is depicted with a straight look into the distance, wearing a brevet with a star on it, his eye brows are a bit contracted and frame his sharply focused eyes. The color scheme is simple Che Guevaras head is held in black and white, on a noticeable red background, only the star on his brevet is yellow.

In contrast to the Fairey poster, the one by Fitzpatrick is much more easily build-up, since there are no complicated outlines or color transitions. It is more likely that Fitzpatrick, cropped out the rest of the image, changed the background color, as well as turned the head into black and white portrait. Soon after Che Guevaras death his main goal was to spread the image as fast as possible “I deliberately designed it to breed like rabbits,” (Holmes np) says Fitzpatrick. Though it was not a campaign poster that should have been spread, it is the idea behind it that they both share, to get a huge amount of people to regonize the poster, in the fastest way possible. Another point both posters have in common, is the desire to change, change as a political order. As I stated out earlier Obamas themes were change and hope and after Che Guevaras death, which was followed by various demonstrations around Europe, people also were looking for a change (cf. Holmes np). And like the Hope poster by Shepard Fairey, the Che Guevara poster, also became a symbol of change (cf. Holmes np). Moreover, by the time the posters got more recognition, and developed into an iconic statement, the several industries took advantage of and printed for example t-shirts or underwear with the Che Guevara logo, there were even a ice cream version of Che in Australia (cf. Holmes np).


In this term paper I wanted to show and analyze Obamas 2008 electoral campaign poster by Shepard Fairey, gradually interpretating several aspects of the image, while contributing background information on the artwork itself, the development and most importantly the meaning behind the work. The research has shown that Shepard Fairey did an incredible job, not only did he create an iconic poster that will be remembered forever, but also he combined the political messages from the democrats with his own perception of Obama, without loosing his way of creating art.

It is to say that the success is caused by the millions of supporters that were hungry for a new, fresh way of showing their support. And with the medium internet, it has found the perfect environment, esspecially for the younger generation, to expand promptly. Of course the Democratic Party maintained the poster, after a short period of time, where they analyzed the image. Fairey did what every fan of the future president would have done, he tried to illustrate the positive characteristics of Obama, also concentrating on the history of the land, that the overall aim should be a united America.

Furthermore the image arouse a spate of advertising material, shirts, cups, caps, the amount was huge, because the demand was not going to end soon. But whether this had an impact on the acual election is questionable. Sure is that Obama won the election with a great percentage of voters between the age of eighteen and twenty-nine. However, it is clear that they did not all vote for Obama, because of the poster, but rather enjoyed it, because it reflects the person they admire with the creativity they like to support.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how this years election will go for Obama and the democrats and whether the supporters and artists will find a new way of showing their support in the election campaign 2012.

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