October 21, 2015

The Visual Promise of Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau mapleleaf

As he morphs from charismatic political hopeful to a first world Prime Minister and a political figure on the international stage, Justin Trudeau has the potential to almost immediately join the ranks of the Pope, Obama and Putin as figures with title, charisma and the command of visual rhetoric to drive/comandeer the visual media worldwide. (If you think this statement is wildly premature or overblown, by the way, let’s take it up again after he attends the climate summit starting next month in Paris.)

The question we’ll be asking is not how much attention Justin! is going to attract, but how much the flair and the showmanship represents mastery in political flair and visual attention gathering (he is his father’s son)…

as opposed to how much that imagery can serve as an effective vehicle for leadership and change.

In Obama’s case, his charisma and his comfort living on and playing to the camera, amplified by all the new social media platforms and tools available, made for some powerful image making during the ’07-’08 campaign run and the following year as the young, new president introduced himself to the American people by aligning himself with pop culture, as well as the everyday guy.

Ultimately though, I think there’s a world of difference between how an Obama, Putin (or even a Kim Jong Un) use imagery, as opposed to, say, the Pope. If the former group has been using visuals in a commanding way,  I believe it’s more for the purpose of personal marketing or, as we saw on Obama’s recent Alaska trip, the highlighting of issues as the Instagrammer-in-Chief. That’s a lot different, though, than the use of imagery as rhetoric, making images that actually provoke tension, that challenge the status quo and, in contrast to lending one’s image, actually lays it on the line.

That’s the difference, by the way, between Obama’s historic but not that viserceral or visually arresting prison visit and that truly memorable shot of the Pope holding hands with the prisoner in Philadelphia.


In the latter case, beyond the unquestioned showmanship, brand marketing and ideological marketing value, the Pope exposed his image, and the symbols of the papacy, to directly challenge the inhumanity of America’s prison industrial complex.

So the question I’m asking is how much Canada’s new Prime Minister, like Obama at the get-go, can take his visual skills and his pictorial mandate beyond the level of the love story, the pop-culture seduction and the illustration of issues.

We aleady know the young Trudeau — advantaged, too, because he is poised to represent the mores and the novel lifestyle attributes of a still younger generation than the Putins or the Obamas — can make a visual splash. The question is, can he make a difference?

(photo 1: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press. caption: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau holds up a maple leaf shape cut out of a sheet of metal prior to speaking at a campaign stop in Brampton, Friday Sept. 25, 2015. photo 2: Peter Bregg/CP. caption: John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, meet with Pierre Trudeau Dec. 24, 1969 in Ottawa. photo 3: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images. caption: US President Barack Obama (C) pretends to fence with a lightsaber as First Lady Michelle Obama (L) watches during an event on Olympics, Paralympics and youth sport on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 16, 2009. photo 4: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. caption: US President Barack Obama, Charles Samuels, right, Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick, left, a correctional officer, looks at a prison cell as he tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, July 16, 2015, in El Reno, Okla. photo 5: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. caption: Pope Francis shakes hands with an inmate as he meets with prisoners at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. photo 6: Nicholas Kamm/AFP caption: Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau kisses his wife Sophie as they arrive on stage in Montreal on Oct. 20, 2015 after winning the general elections. photo 7: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press caption: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau juggles bocce balls during campaign stop in Fred Hamilton Park in Toronto,, Monday, Sept, 14, 2015.)

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Michael Shaw
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