The visual language of political theater


General Photography

I don’t watch TV so I’m “only” following the Democratic Convention online (which in itself is probably as absurd as watching it on TV: Whereas on TV, you can only see what you get, online the tiniest morsel is presented by somebody somewhere, and you’re left out to wonder whether that tiny morsel could have any relevance - how this is preferable to TV escapes me). Needless to say, the Democratic Convention is sheer political theater, geared at people who are not like me. I’m saying this first and foremost because I did not grow up in the US, and lots of those buttons that are being pushed in Denver I simply don’t have (of course, I have other, dormant, ones, which a German party convention could easily push).

Of course, these kinds of conventions are arranged around visuals. (I’m assuming that the audio works in tandem with the visual, but whatever it is they play in between their acts there very clearly is not aimed at me) Things are arranged to look a certain way for TV cameras and news photographers, and the Democratic Convention in Denver offers a nice way to study this kind of political theater (of course, it’ll be the same for the Republican Convention, except there will mostly be white men, with a tiny amount of token women and minorities).

Last night, I had a quick look at the imagery offered here, since I was interested in what people could actually see if they watched the speeches by Bill Clinton or Joe Biden (as an aside it you want a really good and smart speech try John Kerry’s). I didn’t get too focused on individual images (at least not initially), but went to look for what kinds of images I got to see a lot. I can’t and won’t claim the following is complete or whatever else, it’s what struck me when looking through them (you might easily find other themes).

It’s all there: the finger pointing and the other finger pointing (I know the latter from Germany, but not the former; here’s another one), the salute with flags, the upward glance (for a lack of a better description), the serious politician, the chin of determination (made famous by Bill Clinton, see another one here), “the messiah”, … (Somehow, half the images I had prepared last night have already vanished - the links above did point to the correct pictures at the time of this editing, but unfortunately, I can guarantee that’ll still be the case tomorrow. I should have saved the images instead of relying on links.).

And then there is the poignant disabled war veteran shot, where Tammy Duckworth is reduced to her prosthetic feet (if you look, almost all the images of her are composed around her legs), even though for example this image easily is a much better photo than all the others. I’m tempted to call this the dark underside of this kind of political theater, because it can be easily categorized as sheer propaganda. Lest people misunderstand this (it’s the web, after all, and the First Law of the Internet states that anything that can be misunderstood will of course be misunderstood), I don’t object at all to Tammy Duckworth speaking at the convention, and I don’t object to her talking about her experience, but I do object to using her prosthetic legs as a stage or image prop.

PS: If you want to get an idea of how universal this visual language of politics is, have a look at this selection of photos, published on some German magazine’s website (and remember that Germans are pretty unfamiliar with US politics - they basically only know the main characters).