• MP John Gummer feeding his daughter a beef burger

    MP John Gummer feeding his daughter a beef burger

Ideas Series: Photo Opportunity

At any political photo-opportunity photographers should always pause for a moment and ask themselves: is there a chance I can capture a career-defining image of a politician, perhaps a photograph that will always register in the public’s mind?

From the moment they are selected as candidates, most prospective Members of Parliament are happy to embrace an enduring love affair with the lens. They are usually only too pleased to do a photographer’s bidding, eager to adjust their position or demeanour.

Indeed their addiction to publicity is often all consuming; they outshine many other groups in public life when it comes to thinking up or going along with contrived poses or bizarre situations in which to be photographed or filmed.

Promising careers can be blighted in an instant by an ill-judged photo -opportunity and there is now the added hazard of a snatched photograph on the camera phone of a bystander ending up on You Tube.

As a result examples abound of publicity shots that went horrendously wrong and perhaps not surprisingly a burgeoning band of publicity aides is employed by Prime Ministers, party leaders, cabinet ministers and the like in an attempt to avoid embarrassing political gaffes.

While I am not suggesting that anyone should be tricked or deceived, no photographer can foretell the unexpected. If a seemingly innocuous photo-shoot is going awry and an eye-catching shot presents itself, there is likely to be only one chance and it must be taken, whatever the potential damage to the politician concerned.

Such is the fear of adverse publicity that media consultants are deployed in advance to check out locations so that events can be rehearsed and the most advantageous positions plotted in advance.

Control

Tight control has to be exercised from the moment a politician arrives and in my experience the infamous spin doctor Alastair Campbell was unbeatable when it came to overseeing Tony Blair’s photo opportunities, first as Labour Party leader and then Prime Minister.

Blair was admired by his media staff because of his utter reliability; he never went off script and followed religiously the advice he had been given about the positions he should adopt and the whereabouts of television crews and photographers.

In addition Campbell was brilliant as Blair’s eyes and ears. Whenever possible he always took up a position directly behind the press pack, as if he himself was able to look down the viewfinder and see the shot that was about to be captured.

Perhaps the most important safeguard was that Campbell always tried to maintain eye contact, ready to signal a warning or indicate approval should Blair be asked unexpectedly to react or perhaps was not sure of the image he was presenting.

I first witnessed their eye contact shortly after Blair’s election as Prime Minister in 1997. He was on a school visit and photographers in a roped off enclosure were urging him to pick up a felt pen and write on a white board on the classroom wall. One photographer shouted “Literacy the No. 1 Priority”. Blair looked across anxiously to Campbell, who gave him the nod and instead mouthed the word “education”.

In a matter of seconds Blair had written the slogan and underlined it with a broad sweep of his pen. He kept the tip firmly in place at the end of the line, turned to face the cameras and punctuated his own photo-opportunity with a broad grin.

Tony Blair at Morpeth School. Clipping from The Guardian 29 August 1997.

A few months later on a trip to Moscow the Prime Minister’s itinerary included a ride on the metro; roped off at one end of the carriage were reporters, photographers and television crews.

Because Blair seemed pre-occupied chatting to some students, the photographers shouted to him to turn round. I could see that Campbell, a few paces from me, kept signalling to Blair, jerking his hand up in the air towards the handrail.

Blair on the Moscow Metro. Clipping from The Independent, 7 October 1997.

Blair quickly got the message, gripped the rail above his head with his right hand and then turned nonchalantly towards pack with the thumb of his left hand tucked casually into to the top of his trousers, looking for all the world as if strap-hanging was an everyday experience.

Mad Cow Disease

Having the courage to break away and take the risk of choosing a different angle from the rest of the pack can pay off handsomely.

Paul Currie was one of the photographers assigned to cover the opening of the 1990 East Coast Boat Show. Little did he realise that he would end up capturing what The Guardian media page would declare was the most counterproductive image of year.

John Gummer, then Agriculture Secretary, was trying desperately at the time to calm an emerging panic over “mad cow disease” and his media team suggested he use the event to reassure the public about the safety of eating beef.

Currie decided to take his picture from a different angle and he caught the precise moment Gummer handed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a beef burger.

In bending over the minister appeared to be force feeding his reluctant offspring; the rest of the photographers and television crews were silhouetted in the background, underlining the fact that this was a carefully-orchestrated event laid on for the media.

Currie’s picture was widely used by the national press and was reproduced on the next cover of Private Eye with a cartoon bubble out of a television cameraman’s mouth saying: “ The public won’t swallow this” and Cordelia replying: “Neither will I.”