The harsh truth of the camera’s eye: A press photographer’s take on politics, personal branding and the media

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Have you ever come across a newspaper or magazine photo that gave you an instant impression of that person’s personal brand? But exactly how accurate is this image?  And how much control does the subject really have over their brand in front of the camera?  Of course, there are so many other factors that shape these perceptions, from the strategy of the photographer to the beliefs of the beholder.

Our guest writer, who has asked to remain anonymous for this piece, is an editorial, corporate and PR photographer covering news and politics in the UK. His range includes social issues, crime, civil unrest, fashion, sport and royals to name a few. Here we interview him on the fascinating intersection between personal branding, politics and press photography.


As a press photographer, what captures your eye from a photographic point of view? For example, in political stories?

If it is a group of people engaging in the same activity, for instance sport or a protest, then I am looking for movement and energy, an emotional moment of interaction between people in the frame is bestEye contact with the lens, as it makes for a more striking image. If it is a single politician, the subject being active, waving, pointing or gesturing in some way improves the picture with that energy.

A picture of them by a backdrop with a slogan is good to show the context of the story that day. However, a picture with a plain background is financially more important as it can be used as a stock picture and has a longer shelf life.

I try to get an image of most politicians looking serious and powerful but equally important is amusing facial expressions and signs of weakness. I feel both types of image show them as human beings and that is eye catching.

From the financial side, left wing papers will be looking for pictures of right wing politicians looking silly, as will right wing papers of left wing politicians. In this sense, politicians are never going to win the game of, being perceived in a way they want. If they did win, journalism would be dead and propaganda would have replaced it.

How do some politicians manage to portray confidence even on camera?

It depends on whether or not the politician has been influenced by a PR team, and few have not. Historically Jeremy Corbyn would attend events and give speeches with very little given over to how he looked or how the media would perceive him. Looking confident and powerful was not important to him. If he was angry, sad or happy he showed it. There was a natural confidence about him though. Corbyn’s dress sense was attacked during a Commons debate, he was mocked for his clothes during a remembrance service at the Cenotaph. In his pre-leadership days, he was generally singing to the choir and people admired him for his principles not his image.

Fast forward to the 2017 General Election and a PR team, Corbyn is dressed in sharper suits, his facial expressions are less expressive and he is more aware of his surroundings, backdrops, exit signs etc and how they can be played with by a good photographer. Think Nigel Farage with the mic under his nose giving him a Hitler moustache.

Most politicians are now acutely aware of how they might be perceived on camera and have PR agents advising them on how to look confident or empathetic or deadpan. I feel that most try dampening down their facial expressions whenever they can. Generally, they will pause during applause, look up and to the side, the old Mussolini chin up stance still holds for confident. The Tory power stance was mocked ruthlessly and press photographers instinctively pick up on attempts by politicians to deliberately manage a particular look.

A good photographer will make something out of it and not always what the politician and their PR team envisioned. So it is very tricky for politicians to deliberately portray themselves as confident these days. A welcome change in my opinion is that some politicians have decided to side step this game completely and let the cards fall where they may. Boris Johnson and Theresa May are both powerful politicians who, in my view, have decided to let it all hang out. Boris has for years been extremely relaxed and open to being seen in a dishevelled or silly light. I think this shows true confidence and the public pick up on this too. Ultimately, I think this is what ‘it is’. They both realise that a silly look rather than a confident one can equally win the ‘show’ in the media. Think Theresa May’s apparently embarrassing dancing during the last Conservative conference. Even though this was very funny, it was a massively confident move. She knocked Boris Johnson off the front pages and arguably he has never truly returned. After all, as long as you are taking up more space in the newspaper than your opponents, you have won.

What conveys people as less powerful?

Andrea Leadsom during the last Conservative Party leadership contest in 2016 is a good example. Whenever she saw a camera, a massive welcoming smile burst across her face, she walked slowly to allow photographers time to get their picture. However, once she had made her deal to duck out of the leadership race in exchange for a Cabinet position, she actively avoided cameras and seldom smiled. It was like photographing two different people and ultimately she looks less powerful now. Politicians who try to avoid the camera end up looking sly and sneaky.

Being caught skulking in or out of a back door (we usually cover front and back doors) is always going to make them look sneaky. It makes them look like they have something to hide, and sometimes they do. Arriving and leaving by the front door, looking at the cameras, perhaps answering a question is far more powerful than sneaking around avoiding the media glare, even if they have been naughty. Naughty but powerful is better than naughty but sneaky.

How do they make themselves look more approachable verses closed off? In other words, how can they convey “ready to take on the world” versus “having a bad day”?

Again, as with Leadsom before she dropped out of the leadership election, standing tall, smiling unless it’s a solemn affair, looking directly at the lenses and take time whilst passing the cameras makes them seem approachable, confident and ready to take on the world. In some instances looking closed off is a safer bet. Perhaps viewing the scene of a terror attack or a remembrance service. There is a fine line between being closed off and looking solemn, clearly if they are worried about how they will be perceived, it is probably better to err on the side of closed off than a silly expression or a smile during or after a tragic event.

After the Grenfell disaster Theresa May stayed well out of sight, even when visiting the scene it was heavily restricted. Corbyn, although more touchy feely, was deadpan most of the time. The royals on the other hand took the opposite approach and went down the totally approachable road, gentle smiles, cuddling and handshakes. Unlike politicians though, royals have less or nothing to lose.

Have you ever submitted a photo and been surprised at how someone who wasn’t there has read it?

I am not sure if I was surprised but I have had pictures of refugees and migrants stolen and used on racist websites. To me the pictures showed vulnerable people struggling to survive in makeshift camps. The same images were used by the far-right to portray them as desperate “savages.” I also once took a picture of police officers eating donuts from a box handed to them by a shopkeeper at the Notting Hill Carnival. The following day people thought the police officers were placing evidence from some crime or other into the box. A case of looking at the picture and not reading the caption. One of my favourite politicians is Diane Abbott, ideologically we are on the same page and I think she is an inspirational person. I have been horrified that pictures I thought were nice were used to ridicule her. The eye of the beholder I suppose.

Do you have any tips for anyone being informally photographed?

I would say move around calmly and purposefully, keep chin straight. Head straight good, head down bad. If you can, make eye contact with camera lenses at least once during the event, if there are lots of cameras try to make contact with as many as possible. Those are the pictures most likely to get chosen. Once a photographer has a picture with eye contact and a gesture, they will likely move on.

Don’t shy away from the camera, if asked to pose, take your time and ask the photographer what they need. Talking to photographers helps both parties. If you are in a group of people candidly being photographed, make eye contact with the people around you as much as possible. If you are in conversation and you are not looking directly at the person you are talking to, it will show in a picture. As Boris Johnson and Theresa May have shown, it is probably better to let it all hang out (within reason of course), don’t be afraid of how you will look, accept yourself.

It is probably better to look slightly less confident being yourself, than looking fake or rigid attempting to look confident.



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