Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 21, 2016

Campaign 16: Candidate Imagery Largely Hopeless So Far

Barbara Kinney. Imagery via Instagram. caption: Youngster watching Hillary yesterday at a rally in Tulsa.

So, I spent some time looking at campaign imagery on Instagram yesterday and these three pictures jumped out. This photo above was taken by Barbara Kinney who is Hillary Clinton’s campaign photograph. The second, below, is by photojournalist Max Whittaker, whose is on assignment for the The New York Times. The third is by Mark Peterson who has also been shooting for Redux and for MSNBC. (Yes, that was Mark’s gonzo shot we featured yesterday.)

What is your take on the gendered photo of the young girl, the piece of Old Glory and the three avid supporters in the background looking up to (and “ready” for) Hillary? If nostalgia and timeless inspiration is the aim here, I’m afraid Normal Rockwell (though it almost worked for Romney) is radically off-key this cycle.

The choice of style, in fact, raises its own questions. For instance, does the Clinton campaign really believe that this year’s voters are capable of, or interested in sentiment? Do they believe “it takes a village,” or “a brighter future for our kids” or even “girl power” is going to foster a connection with the voters in 2016? Or are they just taking on more baggage?

I’m not saying there isn’t some audience for the style. I’m fairly certain, though, the public is looking for less obvious spin and less romanticism, along with some recognition of all the cynicism out there. In fact, I’m amazed how the campaigns from both parties — with all the young creatives and the Mad Ave. firepower out there — have failed to attract much curiosity with any visual so far. (Social media is waiting.)

Instagram imagery via Max Whittaker. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for photos with supporters after a rally in Ankeny, Iowa Sunday night.

Perhaps one thing the moment calls for, and this Hillary photo is lacking, is just more complexity. Take Max Whittaker’s photo, for example. Between the left side with the banner in the background and the black backdrop on the right, what he offers us is really different scenes in tension with each other.

On the right, as in Kinney’s photo, you have that idealized scene of the candidate tied to the young enthusiast. Given the short-length curtain, though, the situation is disclosed as a ritual and a political dance. The photo is granting us that. The left side (really two-thirds), however, presents us with a different set of terms. Here, you have the unapologetic notion of the campaign itself as a backdrop, as a trophy-seeking contrivance and a self-serving spectacle. (Calling the Donald!)

Ultimately though, what I admire about Whittaker’s photo is the complexity. It’s not harsh and dismissive — the way CNN, channeling Trump and Co., has been framing the election. What it reflects, instead, is how all the theater and the narcissism and the ADD is part of the mix. One take-away here, I believe, is that idealism is still possible, but it comes at a premium and in spite of the artifice. (I guess it also helps if the object of admiration isn’t lining his or her pockets with special interest money.)

Instagram imagery via Mark Peterson. Hillary Clinton campaigning in NH January 3, 2016 @reduxpictures #photojournalism #blackandwhitephotography #politics #hillaryclinton #hillary2016

Which leads us to Mark’s photo. If you’ve been following Peterson’s campaign work at all (MSNBC, Instagram), you know he’s unapologetic about what he’s up to.  Using his own bipartisan brand of poking fun, his portraits embody America’s deep and well-earned disillusion with politicians, politics and Washington. This photo is a lot more than an insult or a one-liner, however. And Hillary-wise, it gives us a lot more to constructively think about than the photo above.

In catching Clinton in a gesture reminiscent of a preacher, Mark asks why it’s so hard for us (and for Hillary, too) to share her soul. Just to be clear, though, I’m not saying (like so many others) that Hillary needs to be something that she’s not. I’m saying that the images being put forth by the candidates aren’t offering a whole lot to connect to. What Peterson’s picture emphasizes, and it’s a concerning one, is that the gap is so large as to be ridiculous.

By the way, we’re about to announce our next Reading The Pictures Salon. And wouldn’t you know, the next event, on March 20th, will be looking at photos of Campaign ’16. Stay tuned for more details.

(photo 1: barbarakinney/Instagram. caption: Youngster watching Hillary yesterday at a rally in Tulsa. @hillaryclinton #tulsa #rally #hillary2016. photo 2: maxwhittaker/Instagram. caption: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for photos with supporters after a rally in Ankeny, Iowa Sunday night. @prime_collective for @nytimes #election2016 #iowa #nytassignment. photo 3: markpetersonpixs/Instagram. caption: Politics in Black and White… Hillary Clinton campaigning in NH January 3, 2016 @reduxpictures #photojournalism  #blackandwhitephotography #politics  #hillaryclinton #hillary2016.)

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