Politics and image

It’s a truism: in the television era, politics is all about image.

Here’s a historic image from Canadian political history. The year was 1974, and Robert Stanfield was campaigning to become our Prime Minister.

CBC News remembers, “In the 1974 election, a photographer snapped a picture of Stanfield fumbling a football on an airport tarmac. It served to depict him as clumsy and inept, despite the fact he had been firing perfect spirals to a reporter for several minutes before the errant toss came his way.

“He once said if he walked on water, the next day’s headline would be, ‘Stanfield can’t swim.'”

Fairly or unfairly, this photograph was partly responsible for Stanfield’s defeat.
 
 
Pierre Trudeau, on the other hand, was supremely photogenic. This was particularly so when it came to television — moving images.

I was surprised, looking over a couple dozen still photos, to see that few of the images were striking. But Trudeau was transcendent when it came to television. He was always in motion:  often graceful, often dramatic, sometimes a clown, sometimes dandified; always compellingly watchable.

Canadians voted for Trudeau for complex reasons, but being telegenic certainly helped.

This is Bloc Québécois leader, Gilles Duceppe. CTV News explains, “During a tour of a cheese factory during the 1997 campaign, he donned a hairnet that looked laughably like a shower cap. The image was splashed over all the papers and made easy fodder for political cartoons.

“‘It took Gilles Duceppe a long time to shake off that shower cap thing,’ recalls political analyst L. Ian MacDonald. ‘I mean, it was just the right thing to do but it projected entirely the wrong image.'”

Visual images are so powerful, they have the potential to overwhelm a politician’s message; or, more accurately, to become the politician’s message. Stanfield was inept; Trudeau was charming, capable, intellectual; Duceppe had just fallen off a hay wagon.

Are judgements of this sort — judgements based on photographic images — ever fair?


Meet Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, currently the official opposition. This photograph was on the front page of the Globe and Mail last week, and I found it very striking.

Harper has been criticized for always appearing angry. He’s trying to overcome that image:  see him smile? He’s really trying to smile, anyway; notice how far he has pulled up the corners of his mouth.

The smile is forced. Maybe you won’t see it this way, but my response is to cover the bottom half of his face to focus on the upper half. Are those eyes smiling?

I don’t think so. I think Harper’s eyes look wary and judgemental, even as the bottom half of his face is making an attempt to be warm and likeable.

It’s only a photographic image, but perhaps it conveys relevant information.

Maybe you can be hostile and still make a good Prime Minister. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this:  Canadians can’t work up any enthusiasm for this particular politician. And I think the photograph illustrates why that’s so.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 01:56:00

    Q said, “Canadians can’t work up any enthusiasm for this particular politician.”

    I find that comment strangely biased and unfair, considering the reputation for tolerance Q has been accumulating over the life of his blog.

    Any type of ‘qualifier’ in that sentence would very likely have been appropriate, but the bare statement is patently false, unless Tories are no longer allowed to consider themselves Canadian.

    Strange post.

    Reply

  2. Q
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 06:49:00

    49er:
    This wasn’t meant to be a partisan political post. I’m not trying to tell Canadians how to vote. I’m commenting on the power of image in a media-driven era. I’m asking the question, Is it appropriate for people to decide how to vote based on photographic images?

    But, in response to your comment, I’ll share my perspective on the political scene here in Canada.

    The sentence you object to doesn’t say, “Not a single Canadian can work up any enthusiasm for Stephen Harper.” I’m sure there are some among the Tories (i.e. the Conservatives) who are Harper enthusiasts. But even among the Tories, there’s a lot of discontent with Harper’s leadership. They plan to vote Conservative, but for other reasons.

    As for other Canadians, you probably know that the Liberal Party (the incumbents) are embroiled in a scandal that has been front-page news off and on for more than a year. But despite serious damage to the Liberal Party, the Conservatives have never managed to climb above 32% in the polls.

    Why, when the Liberals are so vulnerable, can’t the Conservatives do any better in the polls? Why are we looking at another Liberal minority government or, at best (from a Conservative perspective) a minority Conservative government?

    In sum, I don’t think the statement is at all biased. I stand by it: Canadians can’t work up any enthusiasm for this particular politician.
    Q

    Reply

  3. Mary P.
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 08:16:00

    Ironically, while it would be more factually accurate, it would also be even more open to the charge of bias, had Q’s statement read, “The vast majority of Canadians can’t work up…”

    Reply

  4. Bill
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 10:05:00

    Although Q has already said this Q’s original post was accurate in his use of the term Canadians, because unfortunately even a large number of Tories “can’t work up any enthusiasm for Mr Harper. It is not a partisan issue Mr Harper has a visual appeal problem as pointed out by Q.

    He also has a problem with party support considering the Conservatives in Quebec that called for his resignation, and the comments made by Belinda Strounach as she defected to the liberals.

    Peter Mackay is far more respectable and photogenic (if that matters) than Mr Harper.

    I suspect that if MacKAy were nominated then the election would be much easier for the Conservatives.

    It may not be his party that is costing him votes it may be him.

    Reply

  5. Bill
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 10:08:00

    BTW

    coincidental though this may be the word verification on my last comment was Yahgoq or Yah-Go-Q.

    (-:

    Reply

  6. snaars
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 15:34:00

    Many people may be put off by the look of this candidate, and not even know why. They probably won’t give much thought to the matter, and will cast their vote for the most charismatic contender.

    I think the evidence indicates that people reach such decisions on the basis of gut or instinct, rather than on the facts or the particular candidate’s history. This is a bad thing, because charisma has little to do with a politician’s fitness for a task or decision-making ability.

    That’s just one of the prices we have to pay for democracy.

    Reply

  7. Mary P.
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 16:47:00

    …democracy, which is the worst of all political systems — except for the rest of them! (To semi-quote a great man!)

    Reply

  8. 49erDweet
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 18:38:00

    OK. Thanks for ‘splaining. And I already had most that background. The statement just seemed out-of-character, Q.

    My own sense is it needed the word “Most” in front of “Canadians”, but that’s just from my dimly remembered newspaper-editor past.

    Why the Conservatives don’t become truly organized is probably remotely related to why the Republicans can’t run congress!

    Cheers.

    D.

    Reply

  9. 49erDweet
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 18:44:00

    Q, one other question. Could the “photogenic” factor be even more of a factor in your country because of the bias of your national MSM?

    I know there are a few conservative papers in some cities, but isn’t the vast majority of your press pretty openly liberal? And aren’t some members even tied into PMPM’s administration?

    Cheers

    Reply

  10. The Misanthrope
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 20:14:00

    Television has ruined the political system because it is all about images with little or nothing about substance.

    Reply

  11. Jack's Shack
    Nov 23, 2005 @ 20:59:00

    I have to agree that the impact of television has diluted the attempt to search for substance and left more for flash.

    Reply

  12. Q
    Nov 24, 2005 @ 09:48:00

    • Bill:
    “Yah-Go-Q” — it’s going to be hard to top that one.

    • 49er:
    You’ve been a newspaper editor, too?! You’ve led quite a varied life. It would be fascinating to hear some of your stories, I’m sure.

    I am not convinced that Canadian news media are biased. I admit there is a tendency to lean leftward on social issues; but also a tendency to lean rightward on fiscal issues. Meanwhile, all reputable newspapers hire columnists who represent a spectrum of viewpoints.

    And there are at least two newspapers that strongly support the Conservatives: the National Post and the Sun chain of newspapers. (At least, the Sun always has in the past. I haven’t read it in ages.)

    • Snaars / Misanthrope / Jack:
    I think we have to distinguish between two kinds of image. Some images only touch on the charisma (or lack thereof) of the politician. Who cares whether Robert Stanfield can catch a football, or whether Gilles Duceppe looks good in a hairnet? What do these things have to do with government?

    Pierre Trudeau had a very mixed legacy as a Prime Minister, in my view. He is generally regarded more favourably than he deserves because he was so charismatic. And I understand that, because I loved him, as many Canadians did. (His funeral was a huge event.) But ultimately his record couldn’t live up to the hype.

    Other images touch on character. And that was the point I was making with the Stephen Harper photo.

    I don’t think Harper is a very compassionate man. And I think compassion is a necessary quality in a Prime Minister.

    Arguably, that judgement should be based on Conservative policy rather than photographs of the Conservative leader. But people will decide how to vote based on how likeable a candidate appears. And maybe the information conveyed by a photograph isn’t always superficial or irrelevant.
    Q

    Reply

  13. Mrs.Aginoth
    Nov 24, 2005 @ 17:41:00

    Media image has always been a factor in political power.

    i remember reading an article on the power of advertising & political spin in Shakespearian England back when I was at uni, and during the Charles & Di years, the Uk media loved to compare them to the seriously publicity seeking royal feuds of the past (I’m afraid my knowledge of royal history is pretty shaky & I can’t remember names!)

    Politicians all know this, which is why he was happily throwing & catching the ball in the first place!

    Reply

  14. LoryKC
    Nov 25, 2005 @ 12:22:00

    Television plays a huge role in politics these days and often the images are exactly what stick in the public’s mind far more than anything anyone has said.
    (Way back in college, a professor explained that Kennedy defeated Nixon in the U.S. presidential election largely due to his charisma (and makeup) on television.

    On a side-note, it’s always fun when accompanying captions don’t say exactly what was intended, yet capture public opinion anyway:
    http://www.snopes.com/katrina/photos/disaster.asp

    Reply

  15. Q
    Nov 25, 2005 @ 15:30:00

    • Mrs. Aginoth:
    That’s a good point, that Mr. Stanfield was throwing the football because he wanted to be photographed. I guess the lesson for politicians is, make one catch for the camera and then put the ball down.

    • Lory:
    Thanks for the amusing link. This is a tangent, but anyone who loves language has to deplore what news headlines have done to it.
    Q

    Reply

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