A little while ago, John Edwin Mason sent me a Twitter thread, in which Chris Wade had compiled what he considered photography highlights from the Trump years. I had seen most of the pictures, but I still ended up being amazed by them.
In fact, I had expressed my surprise about the Trump team being so inept at visuals many times on Twitter. Having thought about this for a few days, though, I now think I had had it all wrong. Or rather, what I had commented on was not an ineptitude to produce visuals per se. It was the ineptitude (or unwillingness) to produce the kinds of pictures we expected to see.
The difference between what was presented and what we might have expected is crucial. It doesn’t say all that much about the Trump regime, while it says a lot about the visual ecosystem surrounding politics that we take for granted.
This ecosystem cannot be separated from the underlying economy of it all: the corporations that own and run photography agencies, newspapers and news sites, etc. Given I am not an industry insider, I will ignore this aspect in the following. I don’t have solutions for the industry’s basic business problems (if I did, I obviously wouldn’t be writing articles about photography for free).
Our political visual ecosystem is fuelled by photography’s immediacy. A relatively large number of photographers, most of them very gifted individuals, follow political proceedings wherever and whenever they happen. You mostly don’t see them, but you always hear them: a political event would be incomplete without the soundtrack provided by single-lens-reflex cameras’ mirrors rattling against their cages.
Photography’s immediacy is maybe its biggest curse (please note that in the following, I’m using the term “photography” to stand for photography in the news context). We now have access to pictures of events as they happen, whether it’s a mob storming the US Capitol or, two weeks later, a new president being sworn in. This immediacy has spawned its own visual culture — just think of how the picture of Bernie Sanders sitting somewhat grumpily on a chair turned into a widely created and shared meme instantly.
In other words, photography is able to achieve something that Francis Bacon said he hoped his paintings would do: coming from his own nervous system, they would bypass a viewer’s critical facilities and directly address their nervous system. It’s debatable to what extent painting can do this. Photography, however, is able to achieve this effect simply by being a part of our widely networked information system.
Photography’s immediacy inherently stands in the way of producing understanding. It’s not that clear what kind of understanding a photograph can produce anyway — what exactly do we learn from a picture of a president signing a document? Whatever that understanding might be, it would arise out of thinking things over and discussing them in more detail. In out political visual ecosystem, there is no time for that.
It seems obvious to me that all participants in this ecosystem are aware of the problem, and they all attempt to make the best of it. For those in front of the camera, this means that they have to be aware of what an event looks like in a picture, given the system’s requirements and traditions (it is this aspect that the Trump regime so blatantly violated where it wasn’t simply abysmally bad at it). I grew up in the German political visual ecosystem, so I’m still amazed by everything that is different in the US. I suspect that someone who grew up here simply won’t notice — they will only notice when something is different.
For those behind the cameras, the goal is to get the pictures that essentially conform to implicitly agreed upon conventions. For example, when a president leaves office, the expectation is to see him get into that green helicopter, and there will have to be some picture made around that. How do you get anything out of a scene that has already been photographed hundreds of times? That’s the challenge. (Alternative answer: you don’t get anything out of it because you can’t.)
Thus, the transfer of power in the US would be incomplete without the helicopter taking off. It would also be incomplete without the new president arriving at the White House in some enormous motorcade. At some stage, the new president will get out of his enormous car and walk (so far, US presidents have all been men; I’m looking forward to the hopefully not-so-distant day when my choice of pronoun will be able to reflect a reality that many other countries already arrived at decades ago).
If you didn’t know anything about the country’s political visual ecosystem, you would have imagined Joe Biden could have made it to the White House in ten minutes, to get to work immediately. But no, just like in every inauguration year, the whole production was staged — even though this year, there were no spectators other than mostly security personnel. He got out of his car, and he waved to people who weren’t there (there were a few people — reporters and security personnel, but you know what I mean). If memory serves me right, it was called it a “virtual inauguration”. Jean Baudrillard might have called it a “simulation”. I prefer the term “theatre” — in the sense of the highly stylised and very strictly scripted form present in classical Japanese culture (Noh or Kabuki).
There would have to be a picture of a certain kind, namely the president walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Biden team did very well. They made sure the whole family, in particular the very lively grandchildren, were always present. In a very obvious sense, this was a form of propaganda. But it’s a form of propaganda that is inherent in the US’ political visual ecosystem. Everybody knows their role — performers, recorders, viewers. Everybody plays along.
Something is thought to happen in the small moments where there possibly is a crack appearing. Just think about how the media became obsessed with the relationship between Donald Trump and his wife Melania: would they hold hands? Or would they not? I think the reason why there was so much focus on something that is this irrelevant for anyone other than the parties involved is not that the US inherently is a shallow country (trust me, if you look at German tabloids, you’re facing an abyss of shallowness and pettiness). The main reason for the media focus on whether the Trumps would be able to behave like a happily married couple simply was that everybody had agreed on the idea that political pictures have to conform to agreed upon conventions (“happy couple”).
There are a lot more conventions. Think about US politicians campaigning with their shirt sleeves rolled up. Think about how politicians show remorse in public: the biting of the lip, the looking down. It’s all completely fake. But the fakeness is besides the point, much like it’s besides the point that in Noh theatre, emotions are expressed with a set of very simple masks, or that in any Hollywood movie a few very well known actors appear in very different roles. It’s all fake in a very obvious sense. But we know that the actual message appears beyond the artifice (for a different in-depth exploration of this idea in a different context, have a look at my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism).
As a consequence, possible meaning tends to be inferred from someone breaking the visual conventions, whether it’s the Trumps not holding hands, Bernie Sanders showing up to the inauguration as if he were at a Vermont farmers market, or whatever else there might be. I probably don’t have to explain how problematic such an approach is: as a US politician, you can get away with a lot of stuff — as long as you are able to let photographers produce the right pictures.
But there is another major problem here that I haven’t addressed, yet. Not surprisingly, most discussions around political imagery happen along parameters set not by those looking at the pictures but by the larger ecosystem itself. For example, nobody has questioned why we would need to see the green-helicopter picture. Instead, people have been trying to slice and dice which helicopter picture expresses best the idea of the Trump presidency ending.
My main concern is that the whole political visual ecosystem violates the rule “show, don’t tell.” Most events are essentially pre-visualized. Thus, the story is being told in the head of every participant before the pictures arrive. To make this very clear, this is not a problem of the photographers — it’s our collective problem, whether we’re politicians, photographers, editors, publishers, viewers. We know the story before we see it.
Unlike in theatre, where we tend to know the story very well before we see (experience) it, to be then taken by the larger ideas expressed (whether it’s love or loss or human folly or whatever else), in contemporary politics, there are no larger ideas any longer. Politicians have essentially become technocrats, offering solutions for problems, most of which are entirely artificial. When an actual problem — or crisis — comes along, underlying assumptions aren’t challenged. Instead, technocratic solutions (that adhere to party dogma) are applied.
As a consequence, in our political visual ecosystem, most of the time when there is a derivation from conventions, the discussion does not revolve around what the derivation tells us about these conventions (which could provide insight), but around what the derivation tells us about the person depicted that way.
In the absence of discussions around fundamental, systemic problems (for example neoliberal capitalism), instead the system deflects everything onto a single person and turns what could be a deeper discussion into something that’s just only one step away from mere entertainment (if even that: Bernie Sanders’ mittens). As a result, almost inevitably the possibility of gaining no deeper insight does not present itself, and neither does the possibility of deeper, meaningful change. Instead, at best we’ll get giddy excitement about the Trumps’ marriage or Bernie memes (Memefy your dissent!). That’s it.
In Sanders’ case, the ecosystem has adapted to him in such a way that there is an expectation that he would do what he did. Just imagine if he had showed up in a finely tailored suit to the inauguration. In that case, collectively we would have turned against one of the most vocal critics of neoliberal capitalism, and we would be talking about hypocrisy (his — not ours obviously).
It’s not clear to me how the immediate visual journalism that forms news photography would be able to provide insight into what it depicts. On its own, it simply can’t. Pictures can only show so much as can captions added maybe an hour later. In principle, we are in desperate need of another, very distinct component, a component that would entail deeper reflection and a look beyond the conventions, beyond what we all expect to see.
Whatever you want to say about the picture magazine that has now disappeared, this was one of its strengths: diving into stories more deeply. This is not to say that those were the golden days of visual journalism. There obviously were many problems. But the form itself, the longer-form connection of a number of photographs, combined with quite a bit of text to establish context — that form had more promise than anything we have seen ever since.
In a nutshell, the United States just faced one of its most desperate political crises in its existence, where a corrupt authoritarian president almost managed to destroy the country’s democracy. Do we have a visual record of that? No, we don’t. All we’re left with are the weird pictures in that Twitter thread I mentioned in the beginning, almost none of which come even close to hinting at what happened.
That’s pretty scary. After all, next time when there’s such an attempt to overturn the democratic will of the people, the country might not be so lucky.
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