Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
April 16, 2015

Santorum's Sweater and the Endless Campaign

Like many in the photo world, I, too, express condolences for the passing of Lars Tunbjörk. The Swedish photographer cast a particularly ironic eye on the United States, including the endless presidential campaign. If that was just a small part of his overall work, it’s the political coverage that caught our attention.

Talking irony, it’s notable to lose Tunbjörk just at the start of this next presidential marathon. With the PACS even fatter and social media omniscient, who knows how the photographer would have approached the selling of the candidates this cycle. At the same time, his passing prompts us to look back at his work and see what can be gleaned. The photo above, for example, was one of the ones we examined in the BagNews “Campaign Mania” Salon in January 2012.  Tunbjörk’s photo, taken in Iowa, shows the conservative Rick Santorum donning a sweater he received from a fan.

As part of our discussion about the photograph, we were joined by two photographers, Brendan Hoffman and Getty’s Justin Sullivan, who both shot the Iowa campaign that year. Filling us in, we learned that sweaters were an essential part of candidate Santorum’s political persona, functioning like a daily uniform. What we also found out is that his early followers in the primaries well knew this and were only too happy to stock the “war chest.”

Certainly, Tunbjörk’s photo involves some mockery, or at least pokes fun, the bible-loving candidate with his glass of water donning a bright red Iowa State sweater-vest in the middle of a sports bar as the autograph-hungry patrons click and, assumably, drink away. Capturing Santorum with his eyes closed not only highlights the sweater ritual, but even more so, records his compliance with the requirement in these early states for certain acts of submission.

What was worthwhile during the Salon was the ability to consider the irony more deeply. To see the photo as overly mocking or ironic would be the same thing as saying these contests are a waste of time; that the circus atmosphere represents a moral and intellectual bankruptcy, not to mention, a very poor reflection on us. Admittedly, much about the process is nonsensical.  At the same time, photographer and Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Nina Berman, made an interesting point in the discussion that put the exercise in a more constructive context. Edited from the rough transcript, she said:

Isn’t the narrative of the Iowa Caucus and these early moments in the campaign more about how ridiculous these candidates can appear, and the strange things we ask them to do? If they can survive this humiliation and actually endure this process, however — photographed not just by the press, but by everybody else around them — perhaps that’s how we decide what will make them capable of enduring and winning the presidency.

If that’s a less than idealistic prospect, we know there’s a man out there with enough sweaters to fill a trailer who would willingly attest to it. (If you remember, after nine months of campaigning in Iowa, Santorum won the squeaker that January, surged in February, winning in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado, then held on all the way till April before hanging up the cashmere in Pennsylvania.)

On the threshold of another Oval Office endurance test, this perspective, about the functional worth of the gauntlet, might serve as a practical reminder, and even some comfort to all of us over the coming year-and-a-half. I imagine Tunbjörk would agree.

— Michael Shaw

(photo: Lars Tunbjörk for TIME. caption: A Stranger in a Strange Land: The Iowa Caucus.)

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