Were you shocked to learn those photos of Paul Ryan washing dishes at a soup kitchen were basically staged? The VP candidate got blowback this week from the charity president, who claimed the campaign “ramrodded” its way into a dining hall that wasn’t even serving at the time.
But if it had been, would the photo op have been much less fakey-fake? Virtually every image you see of a candidate on the trail is contrived. Those old photos of Clinton jogging? Or Reagan on a horse? Or Bush clearing brush on his Texas ranch, or Obama shooting hoops? Or anyone eyeballing livestock at a state fair while seeking national office? Someone on staff had to set up those scenarios and beckon the photographers over for the shot. It’s the definition of the photo op — and everyone does it.
Peter Mirijanian gets downright misty-eyed recalling favorite photo ops from his days as a Democratic campaign operative. There was the time in ’88 when Lloyd Bentsen stopped by a Pennsylvania firing range. “He shot at the bull’s-eye, and just nailed it! It sort of reinforced who he was”: a tough, outdoorsy Texan. Or when Al Gore, goofing around at a bowling alley before an event, happened to roll a strike, Mirijanian recalled, “We’re like, oh my God, we got to get cameras in here and do it again!” Gore did it again, with photographers bearing witness.
“Done in a lighthearted, spontaneous way,” he said, such photo ops “make the candidate more real.”
Spontaneous? But you planned these things! Bentsen wouldn’t even have gone to the range that day without cameras. “Oh yeah, no question,” said Mirijanian, who now runs his own PR shop. But “all campaigns do that.”
Why? Because “unscripted moments in public just carry too much risk,” said Taylor Griffin, a GOP campaign veteran now with Hamilton Place Strategies — but campaigns still need “to feed the media beast” somehow.
Generally, photographers embedded on a campaign don’t see the logistics that go into these moments; they’re led off the bus when it’s time to start shooting, said David Ake, Washington photo chief for the Associated Press. But they’ll scramble for the right shot, hovering by the diner table with a family, for example, if they’re with a baby-kissing pol. “What you hope for is a genuine moment,” he said.
There are big photo ops (Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier trip) and small (the guy who bearhugged Obama, “totally spontaneous as far as we know,” Ake said). There are ambiguous photo ops (was the photog who captured Michelle Obama’s Target shopping trip tipped off?). There are photo ops that misfire ( John Kerry ordering a cheesesteak with Swiss, Sarah Palin upstaged by a turkey decapitation).
And, yes, the photojournalists are hip to the stagecraft, said longtime freelancer David Burnett, who recalls being brought in to see Mike Dukakis discuss farm policy while sitting on a haystack in a suede jacket. Sometimes they’re even part of the process. In 1985, Burnett was covering the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva. Five minutes before the leaders arrived for their photo op, Burnett noticed their chairs were about seven feet apart. Claiming they needed to check “light meters,” he and some other photogs jumped onstage and pushed the seats together. No one noticed until it was too late. Much better photo!
“They pretend to have a campaign, and we pretend to cover it,” Burnett said. “It’s part of this whole game we all play.”
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