Photojournalism in an Age of Contrivance

Photojournalism is the perfect medium for politics. Pictures define what a candidate hopes to convey to his or her audience with more impact and immediacy than words. However, in today’s media rich environment the value of pictures is diminished, especially when considering how a candidate’s public relations staff controls so much of what is presented. There are always exceptions, but for the most part what gets out to the public appears as a torrent of visual clichés.

As pictures fix and freeze moments, often evoking emotion, they become part of individual and collective memory. Through repetition and recall, pictures establish themselves within public life as persuasive determinants within a system of social and cultural beliefs.

Cultural Display

What we have seen from both the Democratic and Republican conventions is the fact that politicians have learned how to manipulate visual media to great extent. The theatrical nature of the conventions, which emphasize performance and emotion to solicit audience reaction, are structured so that they seduce the photographer’s eye.

Choreographed by political image-makers, the photographer is lured into a deluge of pseudo-events. Constructed for visual consumption, there is little guesswork here. Camera angles are selected and assigned to designated media, lighting is put in place to create the most dramatic effects, and coverage scenarios vetted long before the first convention-goers arrive.

Eyes of the Beholder

Pseudo-events such as political conventions are packaged affairs, and the visual results are often predictable. Take for example, the visual variety that came out of the national conventions. There is always the wide-angle scene-setter showing off the set, the middle-distance wacky-looking delegates all dressed up and ready to party for their party, and most importantly, the long shot/close-ups of the candidates.

It is not surprising that many Americans are turned off by politics after viewing what must appear as the same visual clichés repeatedly. Even the dramatic pictures of protestors being arrested outside the convention centers appear routine. The images surrounding a political event eventually come to construct our social reality and influence how we think, feel and act toward participating in civic life.

As cultural critic Guy Debord observes, “The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.” In other words, reality presents itself as, according to Debord, “an immense accumulation of spectacles.” Media, at large, and photojournalism, in particular, play a distinct role in this process. It appears that, as Daniel Boorstin argued more than 40 years ago, we live in an “age of contrivance” — an age of scripted events.

Wagging the Dog

A good deal of the relationship between politics and the press is based on expectations. Media events, such as political conventions, are set up to be visual affairs. People are socially conditioned to view politics today as a cross between a late-night television commercial for a used car lot and American Idol. People now expect to be overwhelmed by the frequency of images they are now bombarded with.

Images affect perception and people have come to expect this. In today’s hyper-real media environment, it’s all about the show. French critic Jean Baudrillard poses the big question when he asks, “What happens then to the real event, if everywhere the image, the fiction, the virtual, infuses reality?”


The Spirit of Terrorism
Jean Baudrillard, translated by Dr. Rachel Bloul
Le Monde 2 November 2001

An Early Theorist of Simulation: Daniel Boorstin

Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord 1967


3 Responses to “Photojournalism in an Age of Contrivance”

  1. Dennis is right on, as usual. I hope the nation's photojournalists have access to present this presidential race in an UNcontrived way as the American people need a dose of reality to make the right decision.


  3. He is right on, but even if photogs did read this, most of them are unthinking leftist idealogues who play their role in pandering pseudo-reality. Dennis' point about visual seduction is true. Most news photogs don't know how to think critically and simply push the button to get something pretty. Often, even their best efforts at communication are nothing more than visual masturbation: pleasing to themselves, but mostly useless to the rest of us.

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