July 5, 2015

On Those Presidential Campaign Selfies

Fitzgerald Walker 600 x 483

Surely, Sunday’s New York Times feature, especially the gallery of campaign-trail selfies, is a good time. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing it as a lark, however.

What a twist of fate that the phenomenon of mobile photography would force presidential candidates — on-the-spot, and over-and-over-again — to actually have to cater to the will of the people. Given the clandestine way campaigns are financed, the way that process reduces influence and access to the handfuls, and the rest of the time, campaigns successfully paper over the difference with phrases, slogans and images of false populism, how ironic and beautiful that this year’s campaign trail has morphed into one big photo booth operated by John and Jane Q. Public.

But, are all selfies with presidential candidates created equal. In terms of motivation, for example, is the shooter seeking status? a souvenir? Is it a supporter trying to personalize or cement his or her identification?

Fitzgerald Perry 600 x 483

If you were looking to compare and contrast the examples in the Times feature, the first order of business would be to think on the difference between the first 11 random shots and the section of photos taken by one Maggie Fitzgerald, the Iowa lobbyist the Times calls “the Selfie Queen.” If, in a different era, she might have been an autograph hound or a paparazzi, this woman has made it her mission to capture her mug with as many presidential candidates as possible. What’s jarring, though (she says she wants to know if the candidate is a stiff, or not) are the goofy and, many would say, the sarcastic faces she makes when she finally lines up her prey.

Of course, politicians have become extraordinarily adept at applying personal photography and the photo-documentation of everyday life as one more strategic and perceptual tool. The election in 2008 coinciding with the flowering of social media and its wholehearted embrace by the White House, the Obama’s have been visually framed like online friends or the folks next door.

Fitzgerald Trump 600 x 483

And there’s where the democratic brilliance of Ms. Fitzgerald’s selfies come in. As the presidential candidate, be it eagerly or painfully, slaps on a smile in the hopes of reeling in one more voter (not to mention, exposure across that voter’s own network), Fitzgerald looking goofy or, in some cases, even lascivious, is just another way of saying that, as much as we’re supposed to be smitten, this engagement with the 99.8% is about as representative as the view in a fun house mirror.

(update: Removed a misleading analogy to Ms. Fitzgerald’s activity. In a communication from Ms. Fitzgerald, she also emphasized she wasn’t seeking out the candidates so much as she had easy access to them around the state capitol where she works as a lobbyist.)

(photos: Maggie Fitzgerald via The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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