The dos and don’ts of political photo-ops

It’s fair to say that posing for pictures comes with the territory of being a world leader.

The political photo-op is now something of a cliché, but one set of images caught the attention of social media earlier this week.

Pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on horseback spawned memes and parodies. But they also got us thinking – what makes for a good photo-op?

So, we’ve dug into the archives and put together this short guide. Aspiring politicians: take heed.

Do: Think carefully about the setting

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a horse during snowfall in Mount PaektuImage copyrightREUTERS

Image captionNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un pictured travelling in typically understated fashion

What’s going on here?

Fair question. That’s Kim Jong-un riding a white horse through the snowy woods of the country’s highest mountain.

A number of striking – and frankly poetic – images of Mr Kim on a chilly-looking Mount Paektu were released by state media earlier this week.

What can we learn from it?

That the setting of a photo-op really matters.

North Korea insists that Mt Paektu was the birthplace of Mr Kim’s father and predecessor. In this sense, analysts view these images as a not-so-subtle reminder of Mr Kim’s authority and power.

“These pictures are designed solely for domestic consumption,” says long-time North Korea watcher Professor Hazel Smith. “They mimic pictures of his grandfather on a white horse and are meant to help provide legitimacy and authority to his rule.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rides a horse during snowfall in Mount PaektuImage copyrightEPA

Image captionMt Paektu holds symbolic meaning in North Korean culture

 

But, experts say, they are fundamentally designed to emphasise Mr Kim’s superiority.

“They give people the image that [he] is very different,” says North Korea expert Dr Sojin Lim. “That he is not an ordinary human being – more like a God.”

Don’t: Forget about body language

Media captionIt’s fair to say there have been warmer political handshakes

What’s going on here?

That’s former UK Prime Minister Theresa May sharing a frosty handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year. Awkward.

What can we learn from it?

That body language, especially facial expressions, are key to a good photo-op.

And don’t assume that the visible tension here is some kind of mistake. That can send a clear message too.

This particular meeting was the first between the two leaders since the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. The UK blamed Russia, which denied any role in the attack.

So, tensions were high. It’s fair to say this image made that abundantly clear.

Do: Show off your interests

Russian President Vladimir Putin fishes in the remote Tuva region in southern SiberiaImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

What’s going on here?

It’s Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoying some shirtless downtime in Siberia.

Mr Putin has become something of a photo-op legend, with images of him hunting, fishing, and exercising popping-up pretty regularly.

What can we learn from it?

That photo-ops are all about projecting an image. And Mr Putin has a carefully managed one.

“They are an essential part of how he perpetuates his political image,” says Professor Kataryna Wolczuk, an expert in Russian politics. But why is he so often pictured doing outdoor activities?

“It’s all about masculinity,” Prof Wolczuk explains. “Russian men are expected to be strong, close to nature, and engaged in all sorts of daring pursuits. Putin uses these images to project himself as an action man.”

“There’s a cultural tradition here that power is for physically strong people,” she adds.

Image shows Russian President Vladimir Putin as he plays with his dogsImage copyrightAFP

But it’s not all guns and wrestling. “Putin, and other leaders, also take care to show they have a softer side. He tries to appear well-rounded,” Prof Wolczuk says.

Hence the picture of him with the fluffy dogs.

Don’t: Fear looking ridiculous

Boris Johnson got stuck on a zip-line on August 01, 2012Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

What’s going on here?

That’s current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stuck helplessly on a zip wire.

It happened in 2012 while he was still London mayor. It doesn’t look any less uncomfortable today.

What can we learn from it?

That an apparent photo-op disaster can actually work out (relatively) well.

Almost immediately after Mr Johnson was pictured dangling from the wire, an array of memes and jokes about him spread online.

 

View image on Twitter

 

For most politicians this would spell disaster. But, as one witness told The Guardian earlier this year, “he seemed to take the buffoon and run with it”.

Seven years later and he finds himself in Downing Street. Perhaps more aspiring prime ministers should consider a comical zip wire trip.

Do: Get pictured regularly

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov holds a Turkmen shepherd dogImage copyrightAFP

What’s going on here?

That stylish man is Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

He’s known for his strongman image (despite the puppy) and for his ostentatious PR stunts. He also wrote a rap song about horses and a book about tea drinking. Don’t ask.

What can we learn from him?

That it’s important to have photo-ops, at least occasionally, if you’re a country’s leader.

Why? Well, because otherwise people might assume that you’ve died.

Rumours of Mr Berdymukhamedov’s death spread like wildfire earlier this year after he hadn’t been seen in public for weeks.

State TV broadcast footage of the president riding a horse, driving a rally car and shooting targets on holiday in an attempt to dispel the rumours. But there was no evidence any of it was recent.

It wasn’t until he was pictured at an event in a Caspian Sea resort town that rumours of his death were put to bed. Lesson learnt.

Don’t: Get caught editing

Altered image which ran in Al-Ahram (Courtesy al-Masry al-Youm)Image copyrightAL-AHRAM

What’s going on here?

That grainy image (it’s from a newspaper) shows Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak leading former US President Barack Obama and other world leaders along a red carpet in 2010.

It was taken at the White House shortly after Middle East peace talks were re-launched. Straightforward enough, right?

What can we learn from it?

That when it comes to photo-ops things are not always as they seem.

Here’s the original image – spot the difference:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah II of Jordan are pictured in 2010 at the White HouseImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

As you can see, in the actual image Mr Obama leads the way and Mr Mubarak trails behind.

To be fair to Mr Mubarak, it was Egypt’s state-run newspaper rather than his office that altered the image. But it still proved to be embarrassing.

Do: Consider the optics

US President Donald Trump signing an abortion-related order in the Oval OfficeImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

What’s going on here?

This historic image was taken on US President Donald Trump’s first day in the Oval Office. (It was the 23rd January 2017, for the record).

It shows him signing an abortion-related order. He’s surrounded by various top White House figures, including Vice-President Mike Pence on the left.

What can we learn from it?

That the people in the background matter.

This fairly standard photo-op garnered a significant backlash. Column inches, Twitter threads and TV airtime were all dedicated to the reaction.

Why was the response so fierce? Because, as critics of the order were quick to point out, there are no women in the picture.

“All of these people seem eminently qualified to determine WOMEN’S health care. Not,” one Twitter user said at the time. “Notice anyone missing?” another asked.

But one person’s questionable photo-op can be another’s opportunity. So, right on cue, Sweden’s deputy prime minister responded with what many felt was a mocking parody.