Polioptics Part 10: Homage to Image

If you’re just stopping by Polioptics for the first time, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8 and Part 9.  It’s well worth reading the narrative in sequence.


The Story of Polioptics is a 10-part Web narrative based on a multi-media presentation — POLIOPTICS: Political Influence Through Imagery, From George Washington to Barack Obama — that debuted on college campuses in 2009.

The Polioptics Lecture has been updated, expanded and serialized for Polioptics.com, the tenth and final installment of which begins below…

What’s on the front page of your favorite newspaper today?  A scene from a fire in your hometown, firefighters valiantly dousing the blaze?  What collection of video images comprises the top story on the evening news? Maybe the story came from overseas: an amalgam of human suffering edited together — along with a correspondent’s ‘voice-over’ — to show another day of fighting in a war thousands of miles away.

Those events, depending on how they are edited, depending on what’s said to accompany what’s seen, are often as authentic as they come.

Or, given that the 2010 midterm elections are only a few weeks away, did politics lead the news today?

Whatever attracted you to read, listen or tune-in, whether in your hometownin Washington, D.C. or in some distant global capital, how much of it was contrivedplannedorchestrated and choreographed?  How much of the scene you saw was spontaneous and genuine, and how much was scripted? The Story of Polioptics was designed to help you distinguish between what’s authentic and what’s produced.

In the days leading up to whatever you saw about politics, it’s likely that operatives developed an ideaspeechwriters wrote a text or talking points, and an advance team and its collaborators built a crowderected a stagedesigned a backdrop, directed a program and sent forth a principal to say the lines, hold aloft a prop and play his or her part in the theater of political discourse.

In Part 1 of the Story of Polioptics, I offered a caution to all those who too easily accept political stagecraft as genuine drama: “don’t let the show snow you.”

It’s not that I don’t believe there’s an important part in the process for political stagecraft and the historytraditions and practitioners of it.  There is.  But somewhere, perhaps here at Polioptics, people who want to know how the many participants in this circus – the politicianstheir staffsthe audiences and, importantly, the press — cooperate and collude should be shown the playbook of how it all works.  Between the soundbites and the balloon drops there are real people trying to create, project, capture and deliver a message to a wider public.  Called marketing in other arenas, it’s how some ideas flourish and others fail and, in many ways, it’s how our free society operates.

To tell this story in the broadest possible scope, I went on a journey of my own to try to conjure and present many of the images and icons that helped create a certain political aesthetic.  If I could distill what influenced me, it would help me better understand what impressed others.  If you’ve made it through the previous nine posts, you’ve surveyed over 200 years of Polioptics.

Let’s review where we’ve been.

We began with a stamp depicting a tea party that I collected as a boy.  I loved that blue of the New England evening with the specs of yellow light suggesting oil lamps burning in the wardroom of a nearby vessel anchored in Boston Harbor.

We have looked at Pulitzer Prize-winning photos and magazines from another era.  There was a time when a single image, the raising of the flag over Mount Suribachi, could describe an entire theater of war.

We surveyed the front pages of the nation’s preeminent newspaper at the high water mark of its influence in the 2000 campaign.  Whatever shot the photo editor declared front page-worthy had the potential to drive a day’s worth of political coverage and discussion.

As we wended our way from the dawn of this century toward the present, we surfed through blogs and online video, watching as command of the tools of the Internet became the determining factor of how opinion was shaped.

Some will say we’re better informed than ever before.  Others will argue that our sense of direction and understanding is skewed by a blizzard of manipulation.  That’s for you to judge.  As I said at the outset in Part 1, “my goal isn’t to sway you toward appreciation or cynicism, but I doubt you’ll stay on the fence.”

It comes to this: is Polioptics chicken or egg?  Has political imagery changed our culture, or did our culture change, causing politicians to change how they market themselves?

Fewer of us make an effort to read a newspaper.  The ink stains your hands and, at a buck or two a pop, papers are more expensive than what you can get online for free.  We no longer gather ’round the TV set to watch Walter Cronkite. Instead, DirectTV, Dish Network, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Netflix, Hulu and Apple, among others, offer us far too much choice to keep our attention trained on any one story for too long.

So what’s a politician to do?  Adapt, or die.

As you reflect on this, I hope your cynicism doesn’t elevate too much.  My opinion is that, just as marketers must differentiate brandsso too must politicians evolve to operate successfully in the environment in which campaigns are now waged.

We spent a lot of time looking at what happens in front of the lens, but probably not enough on what goes on behind it. I admire photojournalists greatly.  Many are paid by the day to shoot what they see, no matter how much method is involved in creating the scene.  Photojournalists still aim their lenses at the truth.  The best never take the preselected angle they’re spoon-fed.  They try to look beyond the edge of the tableau to tell a larger story.

Campaign duty eventually calls many of them into action.  But when not on the campaign trail, many make a living in harm’s way.  The Journalists Memorial at the Newseum pays tribute to over 2,000 members of news organizations who have died reporting the news, many of them plying their trade through a viewfinder.

In that sense, Polioptics is dedicated to all of them, especially the photographers that I watched ply their trade when I worked full time at the White House during the 1990s: Scott Applewhite, Gary Cameron, Doug Mills, Luke Frazza, Win and Wally McNamee, Diana Walker, Dirck Halstead, Greg Gibson, Paul Hosefros, Ruth Fremson, David Hume Kennerly, Ron Edmonds, Stephen Crowley and so many others. Google any one of their names, and you’ll come up with great stuff.

Images have unique power to pursuade, of course. Without images, we’re blind to atrocities; with them, we are made aware. From Treblinka to Tiananmen Square to Tehran, the truth would be be hidden, doubted, disputed, without imagery.

On June 6, 1944, on their way to liberating a continent, thousands of American and allied soldiers waded ashore on Omaha Beach, many perishing before they made it to the beach, equipped only with faith that the cause in which they were engaged was just.  The world didn’t see pictures of concentration camps — proof that those soldiers had a higher purpose in offering their last full measure of devotion — until those camps were liberated.

On June 20, 2009, a 27-year old Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was killed in Tehran, shot in the chest while she sat in her Peugeot 206, on her way to an election protest.  It was described by Time Magazine as “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.”  The video, shot on a camera phone by a bystander, spread virally, its power gathering strength with each view to galvanize global opposition to a regime.  If you need to be reminded of the power of the video, you can view it here, with full warning of its graphic content.

There is a word we haven’t used yet in this narrative – “propaganda.”  It’s not a well-liked word.  Practitioners like Leni Riefenstahl are held in contempt as manipulators of image. But it works both ways. Without the ability to tell a story visually, lacking those shots of the liberated camps, the fight against Hitler would have been harder. Greenpeace’s work might go unnoticed. Al Gore’s truth would be less inconvenient.

In politics, Ronald Reagan’s rise and legacy owes many thanks to his imagemakers.  They were masters, as was their boss. His message was powerful, as were the ways in which it was presented.  I learned a lot from them.

For Bill Clinton, visual tactics advanced the messages he was trying to send about building community, creating opportunity, and demanding responsibility.

Are the core ideas of Reagan or Clinton worth popularizing?  The efforts of White House aides in the latter years of Clinton’s second term, after I had left, helped to keep those ideas top of mind and defend him, too, against attacks using the same weapons of persuasion to remove him from office.

Let’s think of it as a form of combat — measured by approval ratings or election results — in the marketplace of opinion.

It still goes on today.  A Beer Summit in 2009 with a Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop shows Polioptics at work in President Obama’s White House, just as it is deployed with equal or greater force by those arrayed against him.

And in 2010, in the battle to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy from my home state of Massachusetts, the Bay State continued to give the president fits.  Obama traveled to Boston to buttress the foundering nominee of his party, Martha Coakley, but found that bland was no match for Brown. From Sergeant James Crowley to National Guardsman Scott Brown, you wouldn’t have expected Boston to be the hub of trouble for Democrats.

Even on October 16, 2010, Obama traveled back to the Bay State, to my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, to stump for incumbent Governor Deval Patrick.

It’s all part of the process. You stay in the arena. You take the defeats with the wins. The pendulum swings back and forth.  On Election Day, the pendulum may swing back again.

Old products die and new ones catch fire.  We might wish one side would disarm, but we are realists. The stakes are too high.  For products or politicians to win hearts and minds, on the shelves at Wal-Mart or in the court of public opinion, their brand attributes must be marketed, their surfaces polished, no matter how good their core.

May we all learn to adapt and let the most powerful image win.  Like it or not, Polioptics is here to stay.


If you missed earlier parts of the story, begin at the beginning with Polioptics Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8 and Part 9.

Thank you for reading. It has a been an honor to share The Story of Polioptics with you.  The complete narrative is now archived on the right hand margin of www.Polioptics.com.

Your freedom to exercise your franchise is what makes Polioptics such a fascinating and every-changing practice. Whichever way your political leanings sway you, please go out and vote on Election Day in your community.

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