Politics is about power. Everything else is just window dressing. In politics the only things that really matter are gaining power, maintaining power, increasing power or losing power, and much of the discourse within news falls into one or more of these categories. Endless comment about the nuances of policy or the ever shifting alliances between individual politicians or parties and how this may impact upon the balance of political power are at the core of much of our news reporting. Yet, this media comment serves to frame and structure debate surrounding politics in a very narrow way, one that emphasises the importance of individuals and parties within a very particular system. Ever since the advent of mass communications, particularly television, a three sided game has been played between politicians, the media and the public; all the players hold some of the cards needed to win this never-ending contest. Politicians need the media to get their message across to the public and build support, while, in turn, the media need politicians to create and frame news agendas (which are usually dominated either directly or indirectly by political issues – reports from a committee on A, a response from the Minister about B, calls to reform C, a statement about D etc) which they also use to justify a public service function. Like celebrity culture, there is a cycle of dependence between the media and political elites; they need each other. And just like the audience of a tv talent show, we too get a chance to participate and cast our votes for who impressed us with the best song-and-dance routine on the day.
Yet, in our increasingly globalised world dominated by the invisible hand of ‘the markets’ whose ever shifting sentiments appear to be able to make or break countries with impunity, the power of national politicians has been slowly ebbing away. Finance and the influence of global corporations have produced a situation in which national power has, to a large degree, been hollowed out and where almost every substantial political policy or action is informed with reference to how these trans-national players will react. In effect the political system within countries has become nothing more than a means of managing the population, with parties offering differences in nuance rather than substance. The cut and thrust of politics is, in many ways, a mere facade designed to conceal the real absence of substantive debate. Alternatives are always presented in such a way that they fall within the limits set by the broader system; radical viewpoints or alternatives are condescendingly dismissed as unreal or unworkable in the ‘real world’. Challenges to the status quo only become possible after a dramatic shock (a war, natural disaster, sudden economic collapse or some other catastrophe) when the shortcomings of the political system are laid bare and a brief window of opportunity appears within which alternatives can be contemplated.
In conjunction with this hollowing out of real power, politicians have increasingly become concerned about carefully controlling their public image and how they are seen and perceived. Historically, the first real attempt to disrupt the facade of power projected by politicians was made by Erich Solomon during the 1920 and 30s, when his chutzpah and concealed cameras exposed the behind-the-scenes goings on of the great and good to the public. Foaming like rabid dogs at the latest results from a focus group or an opinion poll, contemporary politicians are insatiable in their search to capture the elusive median voter who is the key to electoral success. Deception is praised as political cunning. Formulations of words are used to convince people that what appeared to be a straightforward promise made last year was in fact no such thing and, anyway, circumstances have changed since then so it’s impossible to do that now. (Recessions always bring out the twin sisters of WAWA and TINA [‘We Are Where we Are’ and ‘There Is No Alternative’] who politicians just love to blame for inaction.) Substance becomes spin. With the advent of mass communications, particularly from television onwards, politicians have been struggling to ‘connect’ with their public while simultaneously striving to control how the media represents them through image consultants and PR people. In response to these demands from journalists and news-makers, politicians have tried to restrict the situations within which the media have access to them (press conferences, photo opportunities, media-events etc.) in order to minimise the chances of negative portrayal while ensuring that their message gets across.
Turning to the book itself, Barón has ambitiously attempted to deconstruct the visual rhetoric of political imagery and look beyond the facade to what lies beneath. Within photojournalism some wry images and a slight subversion of the veneer of power is permissible; fleeting glances and momentary expressions are frozen by the camera lens during otherwise carefully choreographed photo-opportunities (or the unwary politician may position themselves near a backdrop or some other inappropriate prop which will leave them open to ridicule) and are then captioned to either poke fun or provide a visual shorthand for the opinions of a pundit. Such images are the standard fodder of newspapers (we see them over and over again) and they form the acceptable limits of visual criticism within the news photography of politics. But in many ways they still serve to underscore the importance and primacy of the politician concerned; being the subject of such attention means that they possess a degree of status that implies importance. Censorship in this case is not the case of a dour, humourless official determining what is permissible to publish; in democratic political systems it’s much more subtle. Freedom of the press is constrained by the unwritten rules of the game (or ‘news values’ as Galtung and Ruge call them) that determine the choice of one story/image over another, the prominence it receives, where its placed in the newspaper/report, how it is analysed and understood. (Transgress the rules of the game and there will be political consequences through calls for tighter legislation about intrusive journalism and the right to privacy.) All of these factors are decisions made by the editors and creators of news, who consciously and unconsciously, shape how politics is presented to the public at large.
However Barón goes far beyond these superficial and clichéd forms of mild photographic subversion. Through the use of flash to overexpose parts of images, bleaching out facial features and rendering political figures as ghostly apparitions, Barón removes the signifiers of individual power that politicians are so desperate to project. Stripped of their carefully crafted political identities, they become blank, hollow shapes; insubstantial spectres wandering the halls of classical buildings, desperate for attention, trying to convince us that they somehow know what’s best. No longer individuals, they become interchangeable parts of a larger system that is desperate to assert its power and relevance to an increasingly sceptical public. Alongside these images, we see fragments of theatre within which this performance is played; neo-classical architecture, frescos, statues, flags and the rest of the tawdry theatrical props needed to convince the great unwashed that these few individuals are important people. These apparitions are the contemporary manifestation of the divine right of kings walking amongst us. Also subjected to Barón’s gaze are the other players in this eternal game; the photojournalists and camera operators who are likewise transformed into blank, ethereal spirits. Only the cameras remain; the individual players are irrelevant, the game is all that matters.
Although this book is about Spain, the critique it makes about the visual manipulation of politics is quite applicable to any country that uses a system of representative democracy and vests a small elite group with immense power checked only by a periodic election every few years. The Spanish political system, still struggling with the legacy of a bitter civil war and forty years of dictatorship, is under severe pressure to deal with the current financial and social crisis that is engulfing the country. With the current massive rate of unemployment (July 2012) there will inevitably be profound social and political outcomes within Spain which will impact on many lives both now and into the future. After such a sudden shock to the entire fabric of a social system there will be consequences. How severe and what these consequences might be depends on how long the pressure cooker is allowed to boil away. In this context, the appearance of control and leadership is everything. Society only works if we have confidence in it. These images strip away the facade of political power, propped up by massive egos, the trappings of state office and the constructions of news media agendas. Barón’s images reveal that the emperor has no clothes and more importantly, the emperor has no answers.
P.S. My sincere apologies for the quality of my images here – they are just to convey a sense of the book. Better images and a video presentation can be found on the photographers website here.