Where is the smoke? (The visual banality of politics)


General Photography

The other day, the New York Times’ Lens blog introduced a series by photographer Stephen Crowley, entitled “Smoke Filled Rooms,” with a first installment here. The series intent is to “examine the processes and consequences of contemporary American politics.” The essay caused BagNews’s Michael Shaw to ask How Far Into the Smoke Can Stephen Crowley Go? As far as I can tell, this question separates into two different aspects. (more)

The first aspect is directly addressed by Michael in his post: “An early question I have, however, is just how hard and deep Stephen and The Times intend to penetrate the smoke?” It’s a very important question. We’ll all see what the answer is going to be. These days, photography produced in a political context is pretty much like two people dancing, with one person (the politician) aiming for an elegant waltz, the other one (the journalist) aiming for possibly, ideally, for something else: The journalists’ role, in principle, is to inform the public about what’s going on.

Of course, politicians - and their handlers - control access, so it’s not quite a simple dance. Step on a few toes, and you won’t get invited again. So we’ll see how far “Smoke Filled Rooms” will go. But it’ll be up to us - the readers and viewers - to demand more (or better) should we think that things are maybe staying a bit too much on the surface. Michael already started this process.

A second problem is caused by the nature of the beast, its visual banality. We like to think of the rooms where influence is being sold (check this out, for example) as “smoke filled room,” presumably with people exchanging knowing glances and suitcases filled with cash. But that’s not what it looks like. If Stephen Crowley’s essay is correct, at a $35,800 per plate dinner - think about it: That’s a sum larger than the income of many US families in a whole year - you get “a huge, ornate dining room with super tall ceilings perhaps 20 feet tall with roman columns outside next to a swimming pool” (quoted from the post), “a number of celebs and politicians,” and “hot pink orchids” as centerpieces on dining table. This sound less like a dingy smoke-filled room than a room filled with people whose level of income and sense of taste are pretty much uncorrelated.

The question then is: Does showing an event like this really shine a light on anything? Or to perhaps phrase it more accurately: How do you photographically deal with the fact that politics looks so incredibly banal while the consequences can be anything but? Regardless of where you place yourself on the political spectrum you have to admit that any of the presidential candidates look like fairly normal, nice people. Their faces do not correlate with the sanity (or insanity) of what they propose to do. On top of that, they all have layers of handlers around them that usually make sure things look good. This is why when things slip journalists are so eager to jump on it: For once, the visuals seem to reflect the emptiness of the rhetoric.

But usually, things are orchestrated nicely - speeches, poses, etc. How do you deal with that photographically? I have the feeling that the only way to do that is indeed to do a more long-term project, which requires a willingness to step on a toe or two if it serves the purpose - and the ability to work with photography’s limitations in this particular context. So I’m very curious about Stephen Crowley’s series.

What we have to keep in mind when discussing it are both aspects, though. I do think we need to expect an honest view behind the scenes, but we also need to be aware of the fact that in a news context photography itself has a very hard time dealing with things that look perfectly banal.