Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op

September 4, 2008

On Thursday May 1 2003, President George W. Bush soared above the Pacific in a Navy Viking Jet. The Navy pilot then made a dramatic tail-hook landing on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, just returning from the Iraq war. Bush emerged from the plane in a flight suit and helmet, strode across the deck, shook hands, posed for pictures with the crew, and then watched a flyover by F-18 fighter jets. Later, in suit and tie, with a banner proclaiming 'Mission Accomplished' in the background, Bush stood before the assembled crew and dignitaries and declared the end to major combat operations in Iraq."

It is with this spectacular moment that Kiku Adatto begins her lively exploration of our picture-dominated media. For, she explains, the television teams did not only rush to hail the event as historic; they were also unable to avoid remarking on the sheer stagecraft of the event. After all, the entire proceedings had been carefully contrived, right down to the placing of the banner. And Bush had not been anywhere near the combat zone. The Abraham Lincoln had been bobbing a mere 30 miles from the California shore.

And this, according to Adatto, is the paradox of the culture of the photo opportunity. We are living in an image-controlled world where reality and artifice have merged and we are all conspiring in our own deception. In the age of the home video, digital cameras and mobile phones, she argues, we are all media savvy, yet at the same time believe in the images we see. And our gullibility is reinforced by the way in which fabricated images are so often modelled on fictional archetypes. We are more ready to accept Bush's posturing because his stance recalls other heroic arrivals in films such as Top Gun and Independence Day.

Adatto rather overemphasises this connection between reality and myth, devoting a chapter to Hollywood heroes, and another to describing films and television series that are set in the world of the media. But there really isn't much point in deconstructing political satires such as Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, or a film such as The Truman Show that sets out to debunk reality television, since they are so highly self-conscious in the first place.

The main thrust of the book, though, is to demonstrate how the domination of the photo opportunity has led to habitual distortions of the truth. So in a gallop through the history of media images, the author contrasts the original impact of photography as a depiction of unadorned reality with the ways in which technology now allows the camera to lie. The famous scene of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue was deliberately filmed close up to give a false impression of cheering crowds surrounding it. Time magazine darkened the face of O.J. Simpson on its cover. The official, sober representation of Saddam's execution was undermined by covert mobile-phone footage of ugly taunts and barbaric sounds as the rope was tightened round his neck.

It is disappointing that the book concentrates almost exclusively on American media and politics. For example, when Newsweek showed Martha Stewart leaving prison, looking "thinner and wealthier and ready for prime time", her face had been transposed on to the body of a model. The managing editor's justification - that the picture showed a potential truth - begged for comparison with Piers Morgan's famous defence of the fake pictures he published in the Daily Mirror of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi detainee. The photographs may have been false, he claimed, but the story was true.

The same applies to the catalogue of those "gotcha" moments when public figures are caught in embarrassing situations. It is hilarious to see George W. Bush trying to leave a Beijing meeting through a locked door, and al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi trying and failing to use a machinegun. But there are equally glorious moments closer to home: Cherie Blair collecting the milk in her nightie the day after Labour's election victory, or the close-up of Gordon Brown's open mouth as he kissed Carla Bruni.

Despite such omissions, the book is teeming with anecdotes almost to the point of exhaustion. What is missing, however, is any consideration of where the age of media manipulation might be leading. So while journalism students will find a feast of material to devour, they will not enjoy any depth of analysis nor many new insights. And they will not find even a single illustration. And what, as Alice rightly asked, is the use of a book without pictures?

Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op

By Kiku Adatto. Princeton University Press. 288pp, £35.00 and £11.95. ISBN 9780691124391 and 124407. Published 23 June 2008

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