Why you should care
Everyone remembers Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt, but did you know that Vladimir Putin tried to burnish his nature-loving credentials by hang-gliding with endangered Siberian cranes?
In his daring performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Stephen Colbert stood next to President George W. Bush and quipped, “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things; he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares.”
Colbert may be right that Bush posed for some of the “most powerfully staged photo ops in the world,” but he is hardly the only world leader to have engaged in the celebrated pastime. From John F. Kennedy to Queen Elizabeth II, from Putin to Palin, history is filled with unforgettable images that were carefully crafted to make an impression on the public mind. But while the photo opportunity can be a powerful weapon for anyone aspiring to hold — or hold on to — power, it can also be a double-edged sword. Just ask Michael Dukakis or Prince Charles.
Here are several of our favorite staged performances, some of which worked out better than others. Which covert ops would you add?
Capturing Camelot: JFK and Family
The Kennedys were early masters of the photo op. But before John and Caroline frolicked in the Oval Office, their then senator father invited photographer Mark Shaw to snap some seemingly casual shots of his family on holiday in Hyannis Port in 1959 to convey the endearing image of a family man in the run-up to his presidential bid.
Do You Have Queen Elizabeth in a Tube?
Throughout history, few have deployed the staged portrait or photograph better than British royalty, and few royals have been better at PR than Queen Elizabeth II. Although she has never actually traveled by subway in her life, the queen posed in a still carriage in 1969 to promote the opening of the Victoria line. Note to commuters: fur coat optional.
It makes perfect sense that the modern American political photo op was set in motion by a former actor, Ronald Reagan, and his media advisers. Their mastery of the choreographed image extended into the medium of television, as well — from well-known images of Reagan atop his trusty steed on his California ranch to Reagan in front of the beaches at Normandy.
Vladimir the Wilderness Explorer
Reagan and Bush may have ridden horses and cleared brush, but Russian leader Vladimir Putin has taken outdoor escapades for public consumption to a Richard Branson-esque level. From gliding with cranes to handling tigers and polar bears to diving (and finding) ancient Greek treasure in the Black Sea, Putin is the world’s reigning heavyweight champion — and stud muffin — of the photo op.
Dewey Defeats Truman
The iconic image of a newly elected Harry Truman hoisting the Chicago Tribune’s erroneous election headline was not crafted by his campaign staff, but it was staged nonetheless. It took place two days after the election when the president-elect was handed the paper by enterprising reporters while traveling to Washington, D.C., from his home in Independence, Missouri.
Saddam’s Statue Topples
Although it was scripted by a quick-thinking U.S. Army psych-op team — and not President Bush’s advance team — few can forget the toppling of the enormous statute of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The fallen idol became a powerful image of the fallen regime, yet it was viewed as a sign of American imperialism until Marines stopped trying to pull down the statue (with a U.S. flag over its head) by themselves, removed the flag, and enlisted Iraqis to help in the undertaking.
Playing Tank Commander
Rule number one of staged campaign photo ops: Know your candidate. When British PM Margaret Thatcher donned a scarf atop a commander tank during her 1986 re-election campaign, she helped renew her image as the Iron Lady after an unpopular campaign in the Falklands. But when U.S. presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis tried the same photo op two years later, his campaign, well, tanked.
Pardon the Turkey
Few politicians have been so blindsided by irony as Sarah Palin. Just weeks after the defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, Governor Palin returned to her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, to strike a pose while issuing the ritual pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey. The images of Palin chirping in the foreground while a turkey was being decapitated behind her were simultaneously disturbing, gruesome, and hilarious.
Prince Charles’s Zero Pointer
In striking contrast to his mum, Prince Charles has been a bottomless well of awkward photo ops. One of our favorites happened just last year at a youth center in Stockholm, where the prince unwisely accepted a basketball player’s suggestion that he take a shot at the hoop. We’ll leave you to guess as to whether he made it.