Photographing Politicians: What is Fair?

MICHELE-BACHMANN-NEWSWEEK

Do you remember this controversial Newsweek cover of a crazy-looking Michelle Bachmann? Although it is generally agreed that media photos of real people should not be doctored (e.g., Time magazine’s darkened O.J. Simpson cover) or staged outright (e.g., The Falling Soldier), views differ on whether it is ethical to choose to publish a photo that is genuine but also makes the person look like a weirdo, clod or crook.

The photo below, first published I believe in The Independent, brought those debates to mind. Labour leader Ed Milliband looks like Godzilla, towering over humanity as he rages within sight of a strangely quiescent group of people. Like the Bachmann shot, the effect is unsettling.

Ed-Miliband

I asked a professional photojournalist and a professional filmmaker why this shot looks as it does, and they came up with the same answer: shooting at a really wide angle. This stretches the central figure, Milliband, at the top and bottom into his somewhat distorted, elongated shape. The picture being taken at an upward angle furthers the illusion of enormous height — his right elbow looks farther off the ground than the odd red and white curled backing, which is clearly taller than the standing figures. The wide angle is again deceptive here in making the people and backing appear farther behind him than they really are.

The photojournalist told me that you take the shots you can get, and if there is a crowd in the room and you have to shoot from the front with them pressing in behind you, a wide angle is what lets you get the shot. Fair enough. Also, the decision to take a photograph often must be made quickly, so I would not put the responsibility there anyway. The editor had time to sort through what shot would work best, and chose this one.

I suppose one could say “So what?”. Milliband really was there and he really did make the gesture and facial expression shown in the shot, so if it looks weird that is his problem just as it was Bachmann’s problem that she looked weird on the cover of Newsweek. But I wonder if the same shot would have been chosen by an editor for a politician who engaged in exactly the same behavior but who had a reputation for being suave and measured. Milliband already was mightily mocked for maladroit bacon sandwich eating, and this photo fits that narrative, as does this more recent one of his awkward interaction with a mendicant.

What I can’t know and would like to know is what photo array was available to the editors of all these Milliband stories and why did they pick the ones they did? Maybe they all looked pretty similar and the editor’s choice was not therefore consequential. Degree of awkwardness does not seem to be among the 10 most important things for the public to know about someone who wants to lead their country, so I hope it’s not being prioritized as a criterion in photo selection by editors, particularly if the technical demands of the shot artificially accentuate it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.