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July 5, 2007

The Billary Problem


by John Lucaites

What do we do with Bill in pictures with Hillary?

If Bill Clinton were as relatively lesser known or recognizable as most candidates for “First Lady,” the problem might be easier.  After all, there are a host of conventions for photographing candidate and “wife.”  The candidate is generally featured – sometimes because he is physically larger, sometimes because he is slightly in front of or above his spouse in the frame—usually in sharper focus, looking at “his” constituency.  “She” will usually be behind him (or besides), but often in softer focus, seeming to model how the audience should look at him, or looking toward the audience as if guided by his gaze.  (There are variations and exceptions, of course, but they generally reinforce recognizable conventions and forms.)

The problem is that Bill is neither unknown nor unrecognizable, and, at least of late, his presence is precisely to be “seen.”  So what are photojournalists to do?  Should they simply follow convention and treat Bill like any other spouse, standing “beside his woman”?

Even if gender differences didn’t already complicate this problem, Bill’s notoriety does.  And one has to believe that photojournalists know this.  And so we, too, have to assume that they are quite conscious of every picture they take with Bill and Hillary in it – the “Billary problem” – regardless of whether they follow old conventions or seek a new way to adapt.  In other words, what we are getting here is not the ordinary “window on the world” that we like to think photojournalism offers.  Instead, we have a situation where every photograph is crafted to its effect.

This hypothesis — and that’s what it is, a supposition to be tested — has raised some interesting problems recently concerning a photo of Bill at Hillary’s feet.  The NYT featured the image on March 31st leading a story titled “Clinton Camp Turns to a Star in Money Race”:

Billary 1

Last week, we talked about “hands” as an expression of social and political agency.  Here, we have a different body part featured, so we might ask what feet or footwear might signify in this kind of imagery.  And if you think it doesn’t have symbolic value, just recall how shoes are used at the U.S. Holocaust Museum; or how  boots have been laid out in the past few months as a memorial to dead soldiers – sometimes in patriotic memory, sometimes in protest; or to the emphasis on boots in the recent election between George Allen and Jim Webb?

I won’t presume to say what “feet,” “shoes” or “boots” mean as a visual trope, but they are clearly featured over and again.  Here, I suspect, the shoes are calling reference to gender and to class (these are clearly not work shoes, for men or women, and can anyone really rule in 3 inch heels?).  But, while they are in the foreground. they are also in soft focus.  And so our attention moves from them to the face beside the legs.

I could speculate on the elements and composition, but I assume that many at the BAG will have much to say about the image.  But there is something else.  Each weekday the on-line version of the Washington Post features a slide show of the “Day in Photos.”  This past Monday, this photograph showed up in the middle of the slide show:

Billary 2

And the question has to be why?

Why this day nearly three months after the original was published?  And why, in this version, a smirk and this gaze?  Bill is now no longer looking at Hillary at all but, apparently, towards the audience; and the smirk has a “licking of the chops” quality to it.

And as you ponder that editorial decision, consider this:  As I went in search of the original NYT image on-line, I discovered that the the Times – which had originally led its March 31st story with the first image above (I have a screen slide of the original web page saved on my computer and am happy to share it) had since replaced it with the image below:

Billary 3

Here, of course, we have a virtual Hillary, literally an apparition, a screened image not the real thing, appearing to look at Bill.  The expression on his face is really quite different, and notice (once again) the hands, which seem slightly large in perspective and anything but relaxed and comfortable.

So, what are we to make of all of this?  Why does the original photograph all of a sudden show up at WAPO?  Why does it disappear from the Times?  And what does it say about the “paper of record” that the archive has apparently changed so easily?  And what are we to make of the substitute?  And, more, how are we to understand photo-representations of “Billary” here and elsewhere?

As I suggest above, Bill is clearly there to be seen.  The question is, what are we being shown?  And by whom?  And if you are a photojournalist, what do you do?  Do you follow the tried and true conventions?  Or do you adapt?  And what does that involve?

John Louis Lucaites is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and the blog No Caption Needed.

(image 1: still looking. image 2:  Haraz N. Ghanbari, File/AP. March 20, 2007.; image 3: Jim Young/Reuters. published March 2007.

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