Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have turned my attention to the so-called photo op on a number of occasions. For instance, in my post ‘A Photo Op Gone Awry’, I wrote about the amazing moment caught on news cameras when a doctor angrily kicked the British Prime Minister David Cameron off his ward for failing to follow hospital procedures. While the photo op can be a potential disaster, it can, on the other hand, also be a golden opportunity for politicians wanting to improve their public image. Barack Obama famously bent over to allow a little boy to touch his hair as analyzed in my post ‘The President’s Haircut’. Unpredictable behaviour from children or ranting doctors – they are the unforeseen variables that can turn a photo op into a success or an utter failure.
Yet it is also the politicians themselves who can dramatically impact the potential success or failure of a photo op. Let me turn my attention to a more recent photo op to illustrate my point. In advance of an important speech on the economy, the leader of the opposition in Great Britain, Ed Miliband, visited the Bethnal Green Academy in East London on 10 January. Sitting at a table with young pupils, the majority of whom are from an ethnic minority, Miliband sought to portray himself as a careful and empathetic listener, in tune with the desires and anxieties of a younger generation.
Miliband’s position at the table is crucial. Sitting next to two black girls Miliband’s advisors wish to emphasize three important agendas: the Labour party supports young people, young people from ethnic minorities, and especially, young women from ethnic minorities. Miliband’s empathy with this marginalized future group of voters (one that might decide who becomes the next Prime Minister in 2015) is also explored on a visual level. Miliband’s attire is somewhat mirroring that of the pupils next to him, while his tie closely resembles the main colour of the school library in the background and the pamphlets on the table. This mirroring effect can also seen in the image as a whole as the left side of the image closely resembles the right side of the image with Miliband representing the central axis point.
While the girl on the right hand side of the image appears to listen intently to someone in the background, the girl on the left looks straight into the camera. Her facial expression and the slightest hint of a smile give the impression that she is aware of her own image, and possibly, that she also knows why she is placed next to the leader of the opposition. She exudes the type of awareness that is normally associated with image savvy celebrities.
In contrast to the girl’s self-awareness, Miliband appears spaced out as he neither seems to listen intently nor look at the camera. His eyes, wide open and not focusing on anything in particular, make Miliband look as if he is a pupil himself, lost in his own thoughts and struggling to hang on for attention. If this was a real classroom situation, one might imagine the teacher asking Miliband: ‘Ed, are you with us?’. The tragedy of the photo op is that Miliband looks like a child, even less mature and aware of his surroundings then the very children around him.
A small detail in the photograph that debunks this narrative is the cup of tea in front of Miliband. In spite of empathetically sitting next to young students, the cup of tea makes Miliband look undeservedly privileged. One British newspapers exploited this detail when it wrote in the caption of the photograph: ‘Not your cup of tea? Ed Miliband meets pupils at Bethnal Green Academy, in east London, ahead of a speech on the economy.’ (Metro) From an image campaigners point of view, what was likely a carefully planned photo op, turned into a complete disaster. Emerging dazed from the Bethnal Green Academy, Miliband would give a speech that was supposed to convince the British people of his economic prowess.
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