I too was shocked to learn about Prime Minister Cameron hiring a photographer: You mean he didn’t already have one? It seems incredible that in this visually driven world neither a sense of history nor an understanding of contemporary public diplomacy had established the position of Official Downing St. Photographer long ago.
The outcry that has surrounded the story is surprising in its lack of appreciation for the importance of images in a nation’s history — including of its politicians. Formal posed portraits have a role, as do press photographers but they don’t elicit the insights that a trusted photographer with behind-the-scenes access can provide.
President John F. Kennedy realized this when he hired the first in-house photographer after an aide at the time of the 1961 election brought in a photographer who greatly impressed him. The photographer was Cecil Stoughton who immediately recognized that the handsome and charismatic President would be a perfect match for the new era of photojournalism that was moving from staid, formal pictures to images that better captured the human side of public figures. Magazines such as Life and Look and Time were clamouring for photos that would catch the national imagination and the White House and the world have never looked back. The idea of “Camelot” and the Kennedys was driven by images, not words.
After Kennedy’s assassination, a stunned nation was calmed by the knowledge of peaceful succession — knowledge that could only come through the dramatic photo that Stoughton took as the only photographer aboard Air Force One when Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States while Jackie Kennedy looked on.
Today the White House photographers (yes, there are more than one) are an indispensible part of any Administration where they have assignments from the “grip and grin” guest-with-President photo to the intimate family moment. But only one is the official “photographer to the President” which is considered to be a senior staff appointment.
Images are important further down the layers of government as well. In my public diplomacy role at the US State Department I worked to introduce the idea of “visual diplomacy.” If a picture is worth a thousand words then we needed to learn how to capture images that effectively communicated what the US was doing - images which were many times more meaningful than a press release.
Those who feel that this might be all right for America but it has no place in Britain should look more closely as they watch the news tonight. How many seconds will it take before a newsreader is accompanied by an image floating in front or behind? Gone are the days of newsreaders reading out the bulletins. Why? Because images are more powerful than words alone. So much so that a new form of potential bias should be recognized: any utterances from a television guest is demolished by the choice of images that accompany their words.
The converse is also true: where there are no images, words reign supreme and rumors become unstoppable. Tina Brown writing in the Daily Beast counseled the shellacked Obama that he could squelch the rumors that he is Muslim “if he strode from the White House every Sunday with a big old Gutenberg Bible and marched his family — with the first daughters in adorable Sunday best --- to the nearest Episcopalian church.” There are currently no such images.
Cameron understands the important role of visual images in politics today. What broke the ice on the stereotype that Conservatives don’t care about the environment or climate change? Probably not position papers or slick brochures with bullet points. Most likely it was images such as the one of Cameron with husky dogs in the Arctic.
In addition to the vital role of recording a nation’s history visually, any political party that is not keeping up with the media medium will lose out.
Opposition Leader Ed Miliband may have had his moment of fun abusing Cameron in the House of Commons last week for his “vanity photographer” but odds are that he either understands all too well the importance of images and hence seeks to prevent a Cameron advantage or he does not understand it all, in which case we are unlikely to see any photos of him and the family in front of Number 10.