Frederick Douglass was arguably the first person – I hesitate to say “politician” – to use photography for a political purpose. Douglass was an enslaved man who at about twenty years of age escaped a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where he had endured brutal whippings alongside all the other routine cruelties of slavery. An autodidact, a gifted writer and an eloquent speaker, Douglass emerged as one of the great figures in the abolitionist movement in mid-19th-century America.
Photography was still young. White Americans in that era were lucky to have even a single photograph taken of them in their lifetimes, and most black Americans’ lives were still memorialized only in a plantation accounting ledger. But after he rose to prominence in the North, Douglass sat for hundreds of photo portraits. A handsome man, always elegantly attired, Douglass believed the image that he projected of dignity and civilization would refute the idea that the degradation of his race was the result of inherent inferiority rather than the brutality of the slave system.
Today we are awash in images, of course, many of them inconsequential. But what was true of Douglass’s portraits is also true of any politically significant photograph today. It is the literal representation of something, quickly and easily understood, but its true power lies in its subtext: the layers of deeper and more resonant meanings that spring unbidden to the viewer’s mind.
This makes photographs very different from any other element of the news. In most forms of news, including opinion columns, any subtext is a failure of craft. Journalists have devices such as their “ledes” and “nut graphs” to ensure that the reader knows exactly what the writer intended the story to be about. The main exception, which may actually prove the rule, is when a columnist uses a “dog whistle”: an unacknowledged subtext that the reader is intended to get without the writer openly stating it.
When a photo surfaced in Time magazine of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau made up in blackface as a younger man, it drew our attention to the power of photography to rock political campaigns, in a way that is quite different from the effect of purely textual stories.
In the modern political era, the greatest master of imagery may have been Michael Deaver, who was a consultant to Ronald Reagan for thirty years. In the early 1960s, Deaver was working for a California Senate candidate running against JFK’s former press secretary, Pierre Salinger. Deaver would turn up at Salinger events and hand him a cigar. Salinger would promptly stick it in his mouth, resulting in press photos that made him look like a fat cat.
Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.
When Reagan ran for president, Deaver would place him in imposing settings: in front of the Statue of Liberty or the Rocky Mountains. The image, he believed, would be irresistible to news editors. Its positive associations, he thought, would also be so powerful as to overwhelm what he expected to be a very critical perspective from journalists toward a candidate whose conservatism put him well outside the political mainstream at the time. He was right.
In this country, Pierre Trudeau had the same genius for spontaneity as his son has for a pose, and the photographers loved it. Sliding down the banister, the pirouette behind the Queen. Less conventionally handsome than his son, his face was far more interesting, and most of us of a certain age have indelible images of Thoughtful Trudeau, Impish Trudeau, Angry Trudeau, Grave Trudeau and so on.
In preparing this article, I went looking for that photo so many of us remember of Trudeau giving Westerners the finger from the window of a train. It seems it may be apocryphal. There is a Reddit thread devoted to where the heck it is. We even remember the photos that never were.
Before this year’s blackface/brownface photos, the most memorable negative news image of a Canadian politician circulating at election time was the famous picture of Robert Stanfield fumbling a football on an airport tarmac. A cottage industry has grown up around that photograph and the question of whether it was cherry-picked from a series that showed his football skills in a more flattering light. That is certainly an issue of journalistic ethics — but it does not mean the photo sabotaged Stanfield.
The photo was from 1974, Stanfield’s third campaign against Trudeau, in his seventh year as Conservative leader. Its political significance was not that it prematurely defined a man who was an unknown quantity to voters. No doubt the editor who plucked it out to feature on the front page of the Globe and Mail did so because its subtext seemed to capture an existing sense of the man as older and less graceful than the athletic and perpetually youthful Trudeau.
A lot of the most resonant journalism — and this is true not just of photographs — works in one of two ways. Either it encapsulates and articulates an already prevalent but perhaps vaguely understood impression, as in the Stanfield photo, or its subtext frontally attacks and attempts to overturn an existing understanding, as Douglass’s portraits were intended to do.
So now to that photograph. The brownface photo from a gala at West Point Grey Academy. It rocked this election for at least a few days. And, not surprisingly, it was eagerly resurrected by Andrew Scheer in the English-language debate, when he ignored the first question and used the photo as a metaphor for what he sees as the failures of the Trudeau premiership.
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As with a lot of photographs, both its text and its subtext can be apprehended at a single glance, and yet it rewards a more careful examination. Although Trudeau is behind the four women in the photo, he is clearly its main subject. He is prominent not just for his surreally blackened face, from which his white teeth and the sclera of his eyes pop out, but for his height and the elaborate complexity of his turban. We cannot know what the women were thinking; it is a posed picture, after all. But Trudeau’s obvious elation seems to be shared primarily by the two women closest to him, including the one who has his immaculately ebony hand pressed against her bare upper chest. Less so by those farther away.
To me, the photo’s power lies in the fact that it simultaneously both violates and reinforces previous understandings of Trudeau. For most people, the first impression when seeing the photo was probably bewilderment. How could a man whose political persona has been built around openness to diversity and sensitivity to the marginalized have ever put himself so gleefully in that situation? Is it even possible to have been that man then and also be the man Trudeau presents himself to be now?
But that quickly and inevitably leads to the second impression the photograph produces, resonating with previous doubts about the man. Is he perhaps not just a literal poseur, as in the photograph, but also “not as advertised,” as the Conservatives liked to say in 2015? His father had so many faces, each in turn surfacing in public, reflecting a complexity of character that was intriguing even to his opponents; but they all seemed to be part of an integrated whole. Are there two Justins: the decent, sensitive man projected in public, and another, a callow, feckless man, who is largely hidden?
The Liberal strategy after the release of the photo was to supply the most attenuated reconciliation of the two Justins, with a somewhat klutzy narrative that he had grown in his understanding of race during some unspecified period since the photo was taken. Far more successful was the Liberal attempt to drill down and reinforce the previous image of Woke Justin, speaking the language of privilege and intersectionality, hoping that it would crowd aside the fresher image of Blackface Justin.
I was somewhat surprised at how soon after the publication of the blackface photos the Liberals then reverted to the familiar photo-imagery of Trudeau in a canoe and Trudeau in the boxing ring. Too soon, it seemed to me. But its effectiveness was quickly demonstrated when a Conservative troll tried and failed to make the case that the prime minister was paddling the canoe backwards, inspiring much mockery.
Then, even more instructively, Scheer was chided on Twitter for his technically imperfect baseball grip in a Twitter ad that portrayed him hitting “a home run” in the TVA leaders’ debate. Shades of Bob Stanfield.
C’mon Canada, do you want four more years of Justin Trudeau playing dress up and hiking your costs, or do you want to see Andrew Scheer make life more affordable and sock some dingers? pic.twitter.com/eE2MyzcuH2
— Conservative Party (@CPC_HQ) October 3, 2019
Still, I am dubious about the narrative propounded by some columnists even before we saw any evidence in the polls that the blackface photo did Trudeau no harm. It did not hurt the Liberals’ standing in the polls for long, it seems. No more than for a day or two. But it much more clearly affected the way most Canadians see Trudeau, including even some who plan to vote for him nonetheless. At the least, that photo put the kibosh on hopes of reviving the idealistic enthusiasm of young voters for Trudeau in 2015, which drove up turnout and quite possibly delivered him his majority.
And in the longer term, the power of this photo will attach itself indelibly to Trudeau and our understanding of him. It will not be scrubbed off as easily as that theatrical makeup. He is still a young man today and his obituaries may not be written for another half-century. But when they are, that photo will surely feature.
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