When the Photo Op Goes Wrong

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Unveiling of White House Christmas decorations, 2013, AP Images/Charles Dharapak.

The photo opportunity, or the photo op as it is more commonly known, is usually a carefully choreographed affair in which PR advisors stage-manage the visual representation of a public figure stepping out in front of the media. Even the smallest detail in the photo op is planned long in advance: the central focus of the image, the vantage point of the cameras, the distance between the camera to the main event, the lighting, the time of day, the length of the photo op, the visual appearance of the public figure, whether there is interaction with the media or whether the media remains in the position of the silent observer.

Yet as Charles Dharapak’s photograph taken in 2013 during the unveiling of the White House Christmas decorations clearly shows, photos ops don’t always work out as planned. In the photograph we see a little girl, two-year-old Ashtyn Gardner from Mobile, Alabama, who has just fallen to the floor. She was startled by Sunny, the Obama’s new dog, before falling backwards. In comparison to the dog standing on his back feet, she appears small and vulnerable. At this moment, the central focus of the photo op dramatically shifts from the gentile mingling at the buffet table to the little girl on the floor. It is by all accounts an innocent accident as indicated by the wry smile of the serviceman in the background. But Michelle Obama, perhaps recognizing how this scene would appear as an image, immediately tries to keep Sunny under control and help the girl up.

For the assembled press, this type of accident represents a golden opportunity, particularly for photographers burdened by the fact that they are photographing a contrived event that provides very little opportunity for creative expression. The two-year-old girl tumbling to the floor interrupts and even subverts the façade of the photo op. In the far-right corner of Dharapak’s image, we can see a camera angled downward in an attempt to capture this event within an event. In an instance like this, photographers must act quickly: there is no time to change lenses or make adjustments. Whoever has the right lens, the camera on the right setting, and stands at the right vantage point has the best chance to depict an aspect of the photo op that was entirely unplanned.

Photographs created at such a media event become so predictable that they generally lack a sense of realness usually associated with photography. The viewer thus tends to read such images as artificial, factitious, and perhaps even boring. In that sense the photo op can undermine its very purpose: even though the media event is entirely centered on facilitating the production of images, the final outcome is often unspectacular in the true sense of the word. The little girl’s involuntary tumble to the floor disrupts the sleek appearance of the photo op and re-inserts the spectacle in an otherwise highly controlled environment. Here is where Dharapak’s photograph assumes a second life, away from the fluffy PR story created by the White House, to an image that signifies the false reality of the event itself. It is perhaps for this reason that the photograph went viral and was picked up by newspapers and magazines across the world.

Dharapak’s photograph alludes to the fact that the theatricality of the photo op can be taken away very quickly once little accidents occur. When the veneer of the photo op has been stripped off, the viewer is confronted with a situation that is more “real” in the sense that the moment has not been planned or constructed. Such a moment can be compared to a stage actor forgetting his lines or perhaps an audience member interrupting the performance. These are things that are not meant to happen, but when they do they provide an immediate juxtaposition between the real and the fictional.

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This essay was originally published by the Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art, which investigates the life cycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. For more on the Initiative and to offer public commentary on this image, click here.

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