Quartz Media has published a short guide to understanding what news photographs do and don’t tell us about the true situation: Want To Resist the Post-Truth Age? . The example it uses is that of Inauguration Day, when some published photos were taken at an angle and with tight cropping that showed a smiling Trump family and Pence family walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, waving to the crowd. Except that there wasn’t much of a crowd. Wider angle shots like the one above, published by The Atlantic, showed mostly empty viewing stands. There are many other similar published images.
I remember when President Ronald Reagan’s White House manipulated images in this way. When he would arrive at a location, there were actually barriers that kept the press at a far distance. So in order to have any kind of publishable photo, they would use powerful zoom lenses to get close-ups. Here is the kind of intimate photo that resulted:
President Reagan boarding helicopter
Looks like the photographer was right next to him, doesn’t it? And see how the image focuses on Reagan’s cheery smile, his jaunty salute? It makes you feel as if you know him. Creating a sense of that kind of intimacy was Reagan’s specialty as a politician and public figure, starting from his TV days as an ad spokesman for General Electric.
But in reality, even the press pool photographers who were assigned to cover Reagan routinely were kept at an unprecedented distance from him, as documented by The New York Times in 1981, his first year in office:
One effect of many of the security steps has been to establish a physical distance between Mr. Reagan and the reporters who directly accompany him in a small representative group, or pool. For example, reporters at the airport at South Bend were kept too far away from the President to ask questions, which is a normal feature of airport arrivals and departures.
The rationale given by the White House was the then-recent 1981 attempt on Reagan’s life. Okay, that seems legitimate — except the attempt on his life happened on a city street. It had nothing to do with scheduled, controlled airport locations on tightly controlled, limited-access tarmac. The effect was to insulate a President who was known to make misstatements from pesky press questions, while creating a situation where they were almost forced to generate falsely intimate images.
It will be even more essential for us all to develop better skills in media literacy and critical thinking, given the propagandists who now occupy our White House. Good night, and good luck.