The Art of the Staged Photo - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Art of the Staged Photo

The Art of the Staged Photo

By Sean Braswell



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?

By Sean Braswell

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.

JFK with his family on Hyannis Port.

Source Getty

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.

Queen Elizabeth on new Victoria subway lilne in 1969.

Source Corbis

Cowboy Ronnie

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.

Ronald Reagan on a horse pointing to his left

Source Getty

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. 

Putin topless with horse

Source Getty

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.

President Truman holding up a newsaper with headline

Source Getty

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.

Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled from its base

Source Getty

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. 

Margaret Thatcher with goggles on top of a tank

Source Getty

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.

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