By Kris Kitto - 07/22/08 05:50 PM EDT
Kodak may have convinced most of America that the inspiration behind every photograph is a happy “moment,” but many of the country’s politicians know otherwise.
For members of Congress, presidential candidates and other high-profile public officials, photographs rarely represent the opportunity for the fond memory-making or harmless fun that private citizens enjoy. Instead, a bad picture taken at the wrong place, with the wrong expression, or next to the wrong person can knock a politician from his perch faster than the snap of a half-second shutter speed.
Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) said she has seen “creepy” situations a few times where people try to take pictures of her without her knowledge, usually with camera phones. But she also understands photographs are a big part of her job.
“I think it’s important to [take photos] to make people feel like they have access to public officials,” she said.
Therein lies the difficulty. Photographs are part of politicians’ public personae, but they can also haunt public officials for years to come. Recent examples include a photograph of former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) appearing with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff during a Scottish golf outing; former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in a photo next to Norman Hsu, one of her fundraisers later discovered to be a fugitive; and Democratic standard-bearer Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) greeting Tony Rezko, a former campaign contributor who was convicted on federal corruption charges.
The most elite of American politicians, like many senators and several high-ranking members of the House, can hear the constant click of cameras in their pursuit. They’re shot as they step out of their black SUVs, while they climb the stairs inside the Capitol, or after they leave a press conference in the television studio. Many learn to mug for the camera while on the go, but they also run the risk of staying in viewfinders long enough for photographers to catch them wearing an odd look or talking to a suspicious person.
They also willingly pose for pictures with so many people that they sometimes expose themselves to an indelible link to someone who later may fall into disrepute.
Politicians are left in a gray area when it comes to being photographed while in office. They must strike a balance between embracing the public aspect of their job description and keeping vigil over the image that got them to Washington.
Several lawmakers acknowledged the dicey relationship they have with the camera but said they have no hard-and-fast policy to guide them through their seemingly endless daily photo opportunities.
“I don’t have a policy — probably should,” Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said. He estimated that he takes “hundreds of pictures with people,” even getting asked to pose at places he’d otherwise consider inappropriate for a photo opportunity, like church.
His colleague Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) demurred when asked about his photographic appeal. “I don’t really have that much of a problem of people chasing me around,” he said.
Still, he expressed concern about how easily public officials can be captured on film. “We’re all getting used to being photographed all the time, whether we like it or not,” he said.
There are also the less professionally harmful but just plain embarrassing images, like the one of President Bush falling off a Segway vehicle or former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani dressed as a woman.
Politicians “end up in this sort of weird … paradox where they have to control their images and yet be authentic at the same time,” said Trevor Parry-Giles, a communication professor at the University of Maryland who used to work in political advertising. “Unless you isolate yourself, you cannot ever control all the images that are going to surface about you.”
What, then, is a politician to do to in the face of the ever-present camera?
“Most members of Congress have to wake up every morning and just assume that they’ve got to look their best all day long with no margin of error,” said Missi Tessier, a principal at the Podesta Group and former Hill aide to former Reps. Bob Michel (R-Ill.) and Silvio Conti (R-Mass.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “That’s just one of the most difficult parts of the job, quite frankly.”
As for how lawmakers can avoid bad photographs, she said, “I don’t think you ever put your hand in front of the camera. Let’s just start there.”
Tessier said there’s no real way to ensure every photograph of a politician is favorable.
“You just kind of have to use common sense,” she said. The most practical preparation is to have a good crisis communications plan if and when a bad picture is released to the public, Tessier said.
Longtime Hill photographer Marty LaVor said politicians should not look at photographs as such a bad thing. After all, he explained, many of the lower-profile lawmakers have a hard time even getting the attention of photojournalists.
“How many members of Congress never in all their years on the Hill get their picture in a newspaper?” he asked.
Some lawmakers see inherent problems with being photographed constantly but approach the situation with a sense of humor.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) recalls having to be careful about avoiding photographs with an alcoholic drink in her hand while she was trying to get felony DWI legislation passed as a state prosecutor. She also joked that she once received good advice about dubious photographs from former presidential candidate Walter Mondale. She said he told her that if she ever thinks she’s going to be photographed with someone who might fall into disgrace, she should wag her finger at the person so that she can later say she was telling the person off. Klobuchar added she has yet to strike this pose in a photo.
Other lawmakers, like Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), know of the perils of the camera but spend little time worrying about pictures.
“I’m very open to those who want a photo of me,” he said, “and they can put it on a dartboard for all I care.”