How Media Use Photography as Propaganda
Recently, New York magazine published a profile piece on Donald Trump’s White House counselor and campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. The profile itself is well-written, and overall I found it to be fair and interesting. That said, when I saw the accompanying photos, I couldn’t help but be taken aback. I’ve been a photographer for over 20 years, and I’ve done editorial and corporate headshots before. What I saw in New York magazine is something I would never present to a client.
Below is the photo used in the piece:
As you can see, the photo uses unflattering light. As you can tell from the shadows, it’s diffused, but is still not all that pleasing. Any photographer with any experience shooting headshots will tell you that having a subject stare straight ahead into the camera is a poor choice. Most people have an issue with one eye being slightly larger and sometimes not aligned entirely with their other eye. The easiest way to address this is to have subjects slightly turn their heads to the side to address it. Also, there were no touch-ups on Conway’s face. She is a fifty-year-old woman, and no photo editing software can make her look 20 years younger, but some simple edits can easily make the photo appear more pleasing.
I took it upon myself to download a copy of the photo and edit in Photoshop. Without the source image, my options were limited due to the lack of detail in the photo file. Still, after only ten minutes, I produced the following image:
The touch-ups are light and realistic, but it certainly is a more flattering portrait of Conway.
It likely would not have bothered me so much if I didn’t see something similar to this in the past. Bias in journalism can, unfortunately, extend to bias in photojournalism. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann ran in the GOP primary for president beginning in 2011. An early favorite when the campaign started, Bachmann was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The editors selected the following picture:
It’s as if the staff at Newsweek went through every image they were given and picked the worst one to use. What initially stands out are her eyes. Some might go so far as to call them “crazy eyes.” People tend to freeze up and look completely unnatural when attempting to pose for these images. It is up to the photographer to persuade the subject to relax. It makes the process move along smoothly as well. Also, the harsh lighting in this photo, like the lighting in the portrait of Conway, is an embarrassment. There’s a very noticeable shadow going across her forehead. This photo too, was not edited in any way.
Bachmann is not an unattractive woman. While the image below has editing that goes a little too far for my taste, the photo is much better than the Newsweek cover. The lighting is soft and even. And the depth of field makes the picture a lot less distracting.
It’s impossible to prove if the bad photos in question were selected for political reasons, but if you look at Michelle Obama for example, whenever she appears on a magazine cover, she looks stunning. Michelle Obama is 53 years old and looks terrific for her age but every portrait of her features very soft lighting, no distractions, and enough editing to remove almost every blemish.
If there were a picture of Michelle Obama that looked anything like the image of Kellyanne Conway or Michele Bachmann, people would lose their minds. If you go here, you can see images of Michelle Obama on covers of everything from Time to Vogue, looking terrific in every image.
Such trivialities are not limited to women. Below is a Time magazine cover of Mitt Romney; the lighting is flat, and it makes him look much older than he is:
Compare the image of Romney to one Time used of Barack Obama. It is extremely well lit, giving the image a mysterious vibe while at the same time making Obama look like a striking figure.
What all of these images remind us is that bias in the media isn’t limited to written or spoken words. As the history of visual propaganda reminds us, images can be as powerful as words in promoting ideology. And since the clichés are true – every picture tells a story and a picture is worth a thousand words – perhaps conservative men and women in the public eye should start demanding final approval of the images the mainstream media uses of them. Or at least insist on using their own photographers.
This Acculturated article was republished with permission.