July 14, 2011

A Cameron Photo Op Gone Awry

In light of the Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal that has wracked England and punctured a hole in David Cameron’s up-to-now smooth and telegenic Prime Minister-ship, we are pleased to offer you Marco Bohr’s post on another instance, this one highly contained, that not just reveals the political “life-by-photo-op” but documents how such moments can go awry. — The Bag.

The political aides and PR consultants of British prime minister David Cameron are usually very astute in arranging photo opportunities. Take, for example, the amazing footage of Cameron playing Ping Pong alongside Barack Obama at a school for children from low-income families in London. Cameron welcomed Obama in May 2011 to reinforce the transatlantic ‘special relationship’. As a result, rather than playing against each other, Cameron doubles up with Obama as they play against two school kids. Cameron might have been slightly overzealous when he high fives Obama on the odd point they scored against the kids, but in essence it was precisely the type of photo op Cameron and Obama set out to deliver.

These photo ops are highly stage managed and orchestrated events for the assembled media. The angle of the camera, the height of the camera, the distance of the camera to the main subject, the use of artificial or ambient light and the use of personal microphones or sound booms is carefully considered in support of an ideological agenda. So it was the case on the 14th of June 2011 when David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg and the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, visited Guy’s hospital in London. The visit coincided with the governments announcement of a recently modified and highly controversial National Health Service reform bill. The emphasis in this reformed bill, it is argued, is on patient care. In other words, the patient is on the top of the agenda.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron at Guy’s hospital

As a result of this re-found emphasis, the photo op on that day, naturally, would involve a patient.

Both Cameron and his deputy Clegg are filmed and photographed as they casually speak to a hospital patient in his bed. In line with hospital requirements to avoid the spreading of viruses, both have rolled up their sleeves and taken off their ties. Their bright white shirts evokes the image of a doctor’s coat. Here, clearly, prime minister and his deputy briefly perform the role of doctor and head nurse deeply concerned for the well-being of their patient. The added benefit of choosing to speak to an elderly patient, as opposed to a younger person, is that the government projects an image of caring for pensioners – precisely the type of person who paid a life’s worth of taxes and who now deserves to be taken care of when ill.

Dr. David Nunn disrupting a photo op

Yet, precisely because the photo op is so carefully stage managed, it is also prone for accidents.

To the utter surprise of everyone, a man claiming to be the most senior surgeon in charge storms into the room by shouting ‘sorry, sorry, sorry …’. By pointing at the camera crews’ long sleeves and ties, he continues: ‘Why is it that we are all told to walk around like this and these people…?’ As the regulations clearly state, no long sleeves and ties are allowed in the vicinity of the patient. The man bursting into the room and shouting at TV crews is an absolute photo op and PR disaster. Cameron and Clegg’s near identical facial expression is one of disbelief and bewilderment. The patient meanwhile displays a rather nervous smile. Cameron seeks to diffuse the situation by telling the assembled members of the press: ‘Why don’t we erm, why don’t we, why don’t you disappear… I agree.. out… because we’ve all taken our ties off.’ The perturbed and bow tie-wearing surgeon meanwhile (his name is Dr. David Nunn), angrily gesticulates at the TV crews and shouts ‘I’m not having it, now OUT.’ Watch the incident unfold on this Youtube clip:

Dr. David Nunn’s now infamous disruption of the photo op is noteworthy. He is, by totally defying the usual respect and professional distance associated with the photo op, disassembling the very ideological foundation of the event itself. In a matter of a few seconds, its not Cameron and Clegg that are in charge, but David Nunn – who, as he points out, is the most ‘senior surgeon’ on the ward.

Nunn effectively calls an end to the photo op by ordering the TV crews out of the ward. The bizareness of the situation is reinforced by the cameras beginning to shake as their operators head for the exit. If we compare the photo op to (political) theatre, Nunn’s intervention calls to mind the radicalism of Bertholt Brecht. In his plays, Brecht invited the audience to take a critical view of the action on the stage. Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself. Similarly, David Nunn effectively highlighted the constructed nature of the photo op itself and as a result, turns it into farce. David Nunn, apparently a brilliant hip replacement surgeon, reminds us in comical fashion how fragile the political stage can be.

— Marco Bohr

cross-posted from Visual Culture.

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Marco Bohr
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