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May 11, 2010

Cameron, the Right Wing (and Virility) is in!

<span style="font-size: x-small;">AP</span>
<span style="font-size: x-small;">Akira Suemori/AP</span>
Akira Suemori/AP
<span style="font-size: x-small;">Reuters</span>

Hot, hot, hot.

Beyond demonstrating that the Brits have gotten much savvier about campaign visuals, this image — drawing an analogy between David Cameron and a lot bigger icon than Ronald Reagan — shows the right-winger exercising some serious muscularity as he takes over home rule.

As a compliment, a lot of the Cameron visuals in the past week have played to the same theme, the second one here referencing his virility (“Lock the door, honey! We won!”), and the third, featuring the outline of his wife’s belly, speaking to his procreative proclivities.

Because Cameron was such a 10 Downing long shot, only now can the media consider (and indulge in) the prospects of not just a conservative from Central Casting filling out the PM’s chair, but the fantastic prospects of a national (re-)birth.

And, along those lines, Churchill’s all well and good, but who wouldn’t be looking for this kind of comparison?

(I’m am particularly interested in your thoughts on the Churchill comparison, though.)

  • Wayne Dickson

    I’d like to hear from those more knowledgeable than I. But as I was growing up I thought of Churchill as a guy the public liked much more during times of war and trouble (WW II, Kenya and the Mau-Mau, Malaysia…) than during times of focus on domestic issues. These are times of war, both literal and figurative, for GB. Are they looking for another hero to ride in from Blenheim Palace and bring them victory?

    • Michael

      I don’t think anyone thinks of Cameron as a hero. On the right he represents the chance to get back into power, and there is a lot of sour feeling there that he should have done better: he’s in power only through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. And as for war: the literal one is a far away adventure, the metaphorical war is just that, a metaphor, and a pretty iffy metaphor at best. Tough times, yes. But this is about as far from Churchill’s first appearance as Prime Minister as you could get.

  • DennisQ

    Cameron made extravagant promises about getting Britain back on track. He got votes from people who sorta just flung them at the wall. I’d like to think Labour would have fared better if Gordon Brown had distanced himself from Tony Blair.

    For some reason British elections seem more intimate than American elections. Brown represents Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and also “the villages of Aberdour, Auchtertool, Ballingry, Crosshill, Glencraig, Kinghorn, Lochore and Lumphinnans.” They certainly sound folksy, even if Brown himself doesn’t.

  • Dan

    Churchill, it should be remembered, was a Liberal who switched parties to become a Conservative. Given all of Cameron’s lines about “if you’ve never voted Conservative before…” and given that he had to do a deal with the Lib-Dems, it seems like there are domestic political reasons for trotting out Churchill images that have little to do with how people in the rest of the world think of the man.

  • Megan

    C’mon, Dr. Newsnotes. If what you want is an insightful conversation about the visuals, then you need to lead it. You should be participating in the comments, first telling people that this is a place to discuss the qualities of the picture, not the politics. Then you should give little compliments to the people who do comment on the picture itself, and ask for more from them. That’s how you train up people to discuss visuals. Or you could do series on halo shots and reading faces. Three years ago you had a crowd that did that, but they’ve left because you didn’t keep the conversation on track. If you want high quality visual analysis, you have to consistently direct it.

    Further, I really do try, but what the hell is there to say about a dude standing at a podium talking to an audience? It was fun when you drew arrows to the fakeness and showed us signs of stagecraft. But this is what it looks like, and you said what there is to say about it in your comments.

    It would be fine if you said that your blog is about you putting up pictures and then people saying whatever banal political thing they need to say. That is a perfectly fine blog, and you’re doing it just right. That’s what you get about every day. But you are not creating a blog that hosts a discussion of the pictures themselves. Of the six comments you got on the oiled-bird picture, only one was about the picture, and that was me, trying to show by example what this site used to be about. But if you aren’t going to do what it takes to make an active comments section that is about pictures, don’t pretend that comments are very important to you. They very evidently aren’t important enough for you to shape them.

    • DennisQ

      The problem with limiting comments to the photographs themselves is that the pictures don’t tell the story. For instance, the picture of the oil-blackened sea bird isn’t really what’s news about the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Pictures like that add emotional content, but the horror we feel viewing them is no longer the important part of the story. We always feel horror at an oil spill.

      In some cases – like the British election – it’s difficult to find a photograph that contributes anything to our understanding of the story. A picture isn’t worth a thousand words if it takes a thousand words to explain the picture. As you note, the picture of Cameron addressing an audience is basically a dude standing at a podium.

      Would you rather that The Bag limit itself to visually rich photographs that aren’t as central to the news? It’s difficult to find an original way to tell a story that keeps repeating itself. I call this the St. Patrick’s Day Parade problem. If an editor were to slip in a photograph from 15 years ago, who would notice the difference? By now there have been lots of elections and lots of oil spills. There aren’t any new photographs of these events; just repetitions of the old ones.

    • Megan

      Pictures like that add emotional content,

      My understanding is that one of the underlying assumptions of this site is that no news picture is presented by accident, so it is worth making that emotional content explicit, given that some news editor is trying to shape that public emotion.

      I understood that there was a shift in photograph style during the Bush administration, when Rove and his crew were draping Bush in the flag and eagles to an unprecedented extent. Deconstructing those pictures was important, because it revealed both the truth and the impression Rove was trying to convey.

      Would you rather that The Bag limit itself to visually rich photographs that aren’t as central to the news?

      No, I wouldn’t care about those at all. Outside this site, I don’t pay any attention to images. I don’t especially care about good pictures. I care about what this blog intends to do: reveal the intention behind the shaping and selection of political images. That’s why I’ve gotten squawky about the way the comments have drifted from that.

  • Michael Shaw

    Hi Megan,

    Sorry you’re feeling frustrated. I have a couple of reactions. First, I don’t mind getting more involved in the discussion threads but I really wasn’t that active before. My take is that, on any given post, I had my say already and the comments space is more for the community. Maybe, because of the new design, though, it feels like we have more than one “public square” so you feel I need to provide some ballast?

    Regarding the point that I’m less oriented to photo details and the analysis of those details… As DennisQ points out, it’s something of a balancing act. I admit that, over the past year, I’ve been more focused on the overall dynamic of particular images as they relate to the news narrative. That’s not to say that I’ve been overlooking the details but more that I’ll usually focus on a key one or two.

    For readers who are interested in the more “pure” semiotic approach to analyzing the image itself, yes, it makes sense you would be frustrated if I wasn’t speaking to the power and perceptual relevance of the orange background in the oily bird photo, or the physical implications of how it’s making contact with the boat, and/or how the markings on the side of the boat might look a little like a cross, thus giving the bird a more religious/sacrificial resonance. (To the extent this image represents the most iconic photo of the disaster so far, yes, these details are that important.)

    On the other hand, you dismiss the photo of Cameron as a guy at a podium. In the post, however, I call out the relevance of Cameron being juxtaposed with Churchill and specifically ask for thoughts on it. This is a profoundly interesting detail in my view — much more significant, at least, politically, than the bird details. I’m not that versed in Churchill’s life (hence the invite), but, to me, it shows a tremendous audacity on Team Cameron’s part and also reveals a visual savvy in framing Cameron that approximates a Souza/Obama administration-level approach to visual PR and visual PR.

    All that said, I do appreciate your point about the process of photo analysis. You probably never saw this post (Going Back Into Analysis), but it — along with the discussion — is probably one of the most important ones that ever appeared on BNN. If you check it out, you’ll see this concern is not new. It’s also one I struggle with all the time, and will be thinking more about going forward.

    • Megan

      you’ll see this concern is not new.

      Hmmm. I was reading at the time, and I remember those fantastic commenters. Comment drift into politics itself is going to be a perennial problem, and so far as I can tell, it takes a moderator to correct it. You ask what you could do in the comments section (having said your piece in the post), and I think the first thing would be to direct people back to the picture as soon as you get a couple comments that aren’t about visual analysis. I’ve done that from time to time, and a community of people who want the comments section to be focused could all pitch in to tend it. But fundamentally, that is the job of the host. It will only work to the extent that the host (gently) insists on it.

      In your fourth paragraph of your answer, you get a little deeper into the comparison between the speaker and the portrait. Bringing further thoughts into the comments section like that is great. It gives the junkies a reason to come back and read the comments in hopes of more, and stimulates new thoughts. People are more-or-less here for you in particular (because that’s how blogs work). Even if you’ve written the post and want the comments to be for the community, adding more content into the comments will only stimulate more community, not discourage it.

      Regarding the point that I’m less oriented to photo details and the analysis of those details…

      Well, that was my favorite part, but bloggers don’t have to do the same thing forever. If you’re interested in the macro view now, that’s what you should present. Good blogging follows the blogger’s interest. But I am concerned that the comments aren’t pursuing the mission of the blog. Where are the amazing visual analysts you had here in 2006? I can get ordinary political conversation a million other places. I think they left (or stopped chatting) because the signal to noise ratio in the comments section got too low.

      I’m going to hold on to my theory that the pictures were more interesting under the Bush administration because there was an intelligence on the other side that was trying to deceive. But even so, there’s plenty to be interested in now. I think you do a great job of sorting and presenting those to us. I guess I wish that you asked even more (in focus and specifics) of your commenters in return.

    • Michael Shaw

      If I’m also nostalgic for some of the insightful and worldly commenters here a few year ago, I think we have as strong or stronger a group of “regulars” now. I do agree with you, though, that I could be adding a little more focus, asking more and better questions, and revisiting the balance between visual messaging/PR and the rhetorical elements contained in the images that drive that messaging. Thanks for caring, as well as stirring and shaking.

  • Dominic Robinson

    I believe the juxtaposition here is created by chance and the photographer, rather than a PR team. As with most political palaces, Whitehall is lined with portraits of previous politicians. Churchill is obviously a big figure and takes pride of place in this room and other rooms. Many people try to make linkages with Churchill but just like most politicians he was a divisive figure, at times isolated, other times celebrated and involved in disasters as well as triumphs. It’d be interesting to know if the photographer who took this was bearing Churchill’s full history in mind, or just the simplistic WW2 icon. My opinion is that’s it’s probably the latter.

  • Mona

    Michael Shaw, you’re a saint!

    • Michael Shaw


    • Megan

      Presumably for your patient response to me, given that I’m being awfully pushy.

  • yg

    the photos don’t convey the unethical, whisper campaign that the tories ran against brown, full of unsubstantiated gossip, facilitated by rightwing rags, including allegations that brown was abusing prescription drugs. all without evidence.

    • yg

      speaking of churchill:

      Winston Churchill later proclaimed a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, an undying bond of brotherhood, loyalty in war and friendship transcending politics.

      This transatlantic myth has gripped both nations ever since. But Britain’s new 43-year-old leader, Conservative David Cameron, has stated he wants U.S.-British relations re-evaluated and made more pragmatic.

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