Der Spiegel has a group of Reuters pictures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton being really nice to each other at Thursday night’s Los Angeles debate as the candidates prepared the public for the possibility of a shared presidential ticket. The pictures go well with the story and I find them interesting as they manage to get the candidates’ message across while acknowledging their performativity. The fact that it happens on stage gives it a different feeling than what’s presented as a “spontaneous moment”, as in this 2004 picture of Bush and McCain. It’s hard to look at former/ recent opponents suddenly making nice without feeling a bit cynical but that’s ok because we all know that political campaigns are just staged events.
Except that they aren’t; the photographic coverage of political campaigns highlights some of the paradoxes of photojournalism. On one hand it’s coverage of a heavily produced event in which ritualized dramas are staged: those on stage, those in the live and viewing/ reading audiences, and the media telling the stories all agree in some important way to collaborate to support the notion that something real is taking place. Promises are ostensibly being made; points are occasionally addressed head on. Sometimes something that feels authentic is revealed and in order to recognize that, writers and photographers have to pay attention to what’s on stage. Not to do so would be to cover sport without acknowledging the game itself.
On the other hand, journalists look for stories “off stage”, revealing the ways in which the event is constructed, looking for the cracks that the very polished machine cannot account for. Sometimes the pictures that change public perception are fairly transparent renderings of the politician’s own misstep (Dukakis in a tank; GWB’s “Mission Accomplished”); sometimes they are the result of the photographer’s desire and ability to comment and raise questions about what’s really happening. The 2003 picture of a student wearing a t-shirt reading “blah blah blah”, listening to John Kerry is visually pointed but doesn’t work the same as the tank or the Mission Accomplished banner; the editorial comment in the Kerry picture is a carefully constructed sight gag while the other pictures are more of the “give ’em enough rope and they’ll hang themselves” variety.
The very structured, orchestrated nature of these events offer opportunities to look for the cracks that reveal the constructions and thereby comment powerfully.
And then, there is Chris Morris’ project My America, a great example of a consistent and thorough look at the way these constructions envelop the people who participate in them. The pictures are so quiet, there’s no sound, no air, no vibration, just Morris showing us how consent and belief are orchestrated through the management of cultural symbols. My America, however, is a project, an exhibition, a book, and not daily coverage.
I’m not sure what to make of these stock pictures of campaigns. They seem to have nothing to do with Morris’ work, and everything too.