Photographing Politicians: What is Fair?

MICHELE-BACHMANN-NEWSWEEKDo 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 Miliband 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.


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, Miliband, 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?”. Miliband 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. Miliband 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 Miliband 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Photographing Politicians: What is Fair?”

  1. Everybody looks stupid or angry with their mouth open, other than in a smile. So I suggest a rule of thumb that it's unfair to publish such shots except to illustrate a point made in the story about the subject's rhetorical style and impact (e.g. Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro). Miliband is not a rabble-rouser but a bland centrist. The photo would only be justifiable IMHO if the article reported on efforts by Miliband to pretend to be an old-style Red Clydesider.

    The Bachmann shot looks normal until you look at the pop eyes, fitting her Queen of Hearts political persona. Is she in fact exopthalmic?

    1. I acnot read James Wimberley without learning something. Today it was the word exopthalmic.

    2. Nothing wrong with the photo and Michelle Bachmann doesn't suffer from exophthalmos. She's just absolutely, totally batshit crazy. Michelle Bachmann is the Queen of Hearts. (Also, super bonus points for exophthalmic—thank you)

  2. The photo was also taken from somewhere around knee level, possibly to visually isolate Milliband from the crowd behind him, or possibly in the knowledge that it would make him loom. The way the room is scaled strongly suggests that there was plenty of space for a different approach. (And the shadows on the floor suggest that there was a whole gaggle of photographers down in front.

    1. This is a standard technique. Many years ago I remember seeing a press photographer literally lie in the gutter to get a picture of a friend of mine who was leading a strike, and who was a small and unassuming looking guy. The published picture made him look like a looming monster.

  3. I’ve been looking at this photograph since it was posted and something about it has been bouncing around in my head. Now I know what it is. Yes, Ed Miliband looks a tiny bit strange and awkward in this photograph partly because of the use of a wide angle lens. But the distortion is barely noticeable; besides, he always looks a bit awkward even in the photographs his people take and distribute.

    I think this is actually the best photograph ever of Ed Miliband. It is the photograph that could make him the next prime minister. It shows a man who is passionate, forceful and speaking out in a very determined way for what he believes. He is ready to take the fight to the Tories.

    If I were advising him, I’d tell him to put that photograph on his bathroom mirror and look at it every morning when he shaves. He needs to become the man in the photograph. Ed Miliband probably can’t become prime minister but the man in the photograph can.

    1. It is the photograph that could make him the next prime minister. It shows a man who is passionate, forceful and speaking out in a very determined way for what he believes. He is ready to take the fight to the Tories.

      Just saw this comment, a few months after the election. Amusing.

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