A short stumble from Savile Row to the Oxfam shop… the art of political photography

I KNOW a few underemployed photographers. Perhaps they will be interested to learn that the Cabinet office has a job at around sixty grand a year.

An initial misreading of this story left me thinking Boris Johnson wanted a photographer to take more flattering photos.

He usually looks shiftily dishevelled in news photographs. Most men are smart in a suit even if they’d rather not wear one. Johnson contrives to be untidy in suits that never fit, bunching up in the wrong places, the trousers too long (or the legs too short; an affliction I share), the jacket buttons awkwardly skew-whiff.

A short stumble from Savile Row to the Oxfam shop.

Photographs of political leaders can themselves be political. Not so much in the shooting as in how they are used. A news photographer will fire off in rapid succession, hoping to catch the moment, combining their skill with a sixth sense for what might be about to happen.

Which photograph to use is then an artistic choice or a judgment about how the photograph fits the story. Or the decision will itself be political, as pictures can make a leader look good or bad, flattery or insult delivered by the same lens, seconds apart.

That’s what I thought was happening here, Johnson wanting someone to do a bit of brown-nosing with a camera. But I’d forgotten he already has a personal photographer in the shape of Andrew Parsons.

It’s surely a vanity project for a PM to employ his own photographer. It’s also pointless, unless he wishes to ban all other photographers.

Such a decree seems unlikely, although in truth it would no longer tick the box marked: “Well, I wasn’t expecting to discover that.”

Especially when you consider that Boris Johnson has just appointed his own press spokesman, the job going to the political journalist Allegra Stratton at a reported £100,000 a year.

A lot of taxpayers’ money for a spokeswoman to understudy the prime minister. Why can’t Boris Johnson just speak for himself? At a guess the foot-in-mouth potential explains that one.

Anyway, the Cabinet Office photographer is reportedly being hired to “promote the work of ministers and the wider government visually”.

If the photographer is too controlled, this risks being  another political vanity project. If they are allowed to photograph whatever they want however they want, the results could be interesting. But how likely is such freedom?

It is interesting how leaders worry about their image. All those photographs of Johnson looking dishevelled and knackered are not flattering. But they tell the story. They flatter not him but the moment – far more than a stage-managed shot of the Bumbler in Chief pretending to be statesmanlike. The strain is part of the story.

In the US, photographer Pete Sousa worked with the Republican Ronald Reagan and the Democrat Barack Obama. He expresses horror at the tawdry soap opera of Donald Trump’s White House. Interestingly, he also claims photographs of Trump working in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19 were “obviously posed pictures”.

Souza says that in one designed to show the President working hard while ill, he appears to be signing a blank sheet of paper. The photographer who took that was contriving in a lie as plain as the orange tint on Trump’s face.

Then again, Trump reportedly claimed $70,000 a year on hairstyling in his tax-avoidance wheeze. Even a reluctant baldie can see that’s quite a spend for hair seemingly spun from a bag of spilt sugar.

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