Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
October 23, 2015

Illustrating vs Storytelling: Jacquelyn Martin’s Photo of Biden in the Rose Garden

Yesterday’s Rose Garden announcement by Joe Biden gives us the opportunity to see the difference between a photo that illustrates and one that tells a story.

The photo below was the subject of a post by Washington Post political writer, Chris Cillizza. The writer gave over his blog column yesterday to interpret the meaning of Obama placing his hand on Biden’s shoulder following the profound press conference in the White House Rose Garden.

If you missed it, the preceding announcement couldn’t have been more emotional. After weeks of intense speculation Biden might make a late entrance into the presidential race as competition for Hillary Clinton, he informed the nation that the enduring grief over his son, Senator Beau Biden, who died in May, had proved too much to overcome. Certainly, the poignancy of the announcement – simultaneously, signaling the sign-off of a long and illustrious political career – was not lost on his boss, Barack Obama, who has grown into a very close friend.

Now, I’m not saying Cillizza is wrong about the meaning of the hand on the shoulder, reinforced by what, from an oblique angle, might even be Obama choking-up a little. What I’m saying, though, is that the sentiment is less revealed than inferred. What we can say more reliably, in fact, is that the journalist is ascribing that meaning based on his knowledge and his own emotional reaction to what had just happened. That’s how a powerful illustrative photo operates. Otherwise, for all we know, Obama might have just been steering Biden ahead.

Contrast that, however, with the photo by the AP’s Jacquelyn Martin that the New York Times published on yesterday’s front page. Ever skilled at finding the most artful and the most informationally- or emotionally-laden shot for their cover, this surprisingly intimate picture captures Biden, cradling her forearm, locked in a deep and knowing gaze with his wife and partner, Jill Biden, after making his decision known. Here, the intensity, and even more so, the complexity of the expression requires no reading in. It’s a look we recognize as coming from the mind as much as from the heart, the compendium of who-knows-how-many conversations they have exchanged and joys and trials they have shared.

And there is another dimension to the expression, too, that is also profoundly telling. Silent and soul-searching is not the way one would describe Biden’s typically irrepressible spirit, his continuous effervescence being the quality that makes him so popular (and made him a favorite to run). As opposed to hundreds of photos of the president placing his hand on Biden’s shoulder, this one, in an undeniable and uncharacteristic way, also captures the man touching us.

(photo 1: Jacquelyn Martin / AP. caption: Vice President Biden turns to his wife, Jill, after announcing his decision at the White House with President Obama at his side. In Biden’s life in politics, family has been central. photo 2: Mike Theiler/Pool via Bloomberg. caption: Vice President Joe Biden, center, his wife Jill Biden, right, and President Obama walk towards the Oval Office after Biden announced Wednesday that he won’t seek the presidency in 2016.)

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