The Political Image

by Sophia Harvey


Photography first made a political appearance in the mid-1800s when Abraham Lincoln used it to his advantage to cultivate a well-liked public image. This, one could say, was the beginning of political ad campaigning as we know it today. Using the power of portraiture and mass media, Lincoln was able to ingrain his likeness in the public’s mind, and foster with it the persona as a kind, honest, family-man. The president famously joked that if it weren’t for photographer Matthew Brady’s portraits, he wouldn’t have been re-elected.

At the same time, documentation of a different sort came about. Brady, as well as other pioneering photographers of the time, took it upon themselves to begin capturing the Civil War. Brady had grown bored of portraiture and longed to document the turmoil of the war. On the condition that Brady finance his own project, Lincoln allowed it, and war photography was born. Once made public, these photographs caused an enormous stir. This was the first time that the horrors of war were seen at home.

The struggle between war photography and ad campaigns in presidential elections is a common theme, made even more prevalent with the introduction of television. While war photography attempts to document and publicize horrible truths, the images used in campaigns serve to counter any upset caused by those truths.

Today, media is at critical mass, and the photograph has remained at its center. Now we are subjected to images left and right. Most of them doctored. All of them carefully supervised. Politicians fiercely control those portraits taken of them, meticulously monitor public appearances, and use unflattering images to debase opponents’ reputations. Hilary Clinton does not allow photography below the waist. Obama does not allow paparazzi to see him smoking. All presidents and high-power politicians have a team of people who calculate the most crowd friendly shade of blue for their suits, the most acceptable degree of scuff for their shoes (too much is sloppy, too little is elitist), and exactly how wide their smile should be at any given moment.

Pictures and footage of war in the Middle East are on the news each and every night, however, in an attempt to shake a nation that eats shock for breakfast. Unfortunately, we are practically desensitized. We are part of a generation that has been trained to ignore the flood of disturbing pictures, soundbites, and headlines that we take in every day. Recently, perhaps the most devastating and powerful images to surface were those taken of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. These depictions managed to break through the fog of media-induced desensitization and cause a ruckus. But a proportionally brief one. Government and media quelled the uproar as quickly as possible.

The question is, with this much media control, has photography brought about more transparency, or less? Documentation has no doubt raised awareness of the horrors of war, natural disaster, and oppression of all kinds, but it is countered so masterfully through corporate-controlled media that there is an immense dilution of message. In this day of technology, we must also consider the validity of the images we are being shown. With the possibilities that programs like Photoshop provide, viewers must constantly be questioning. Fox News is especially guilty of this sort of tactic. In 2009, conservative pundit Sean Hannity was exposed for airing footage of a large protest at the capital building, claiming that it was a Tea Party rally. In reality, the rally was must more modest in size and the footage was from a completely separate event. They were caught that time, but it makes one wonder how often they, and other programs, get away with airing wrong and misleading images.

In terms of photography itself, this kind of dilemma speaks volumes about the power of image. In terms of government, it speaks to the far reaching power it holds. In terms of ourselves, the public, voting on November 6th, the interplay between politicians and what they present to us visually is crucial to remember in the time leading up to when we cast our ballots.

This article was published in ISO: