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