Behold the Media’s Photo-Propaganda

Recently, New York magazine published a profile piece on Donald Trump’s White House counselor and campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. The profile itself is well-written, and overall I found it to be fair and interesting. That said, when I saw the accompanying photos, I couldn’t help but be taken aback. I’ve been a photographer for over 20 years, and I’ve done editorial and corporate headshots before. What I saw in New York magazine is something I would never present to a client.

Below is the photo used in the piece:

As you can see, the photo uses unflattering light. As you can tell from the shadows, it’s diffused, but is still not all that pleasing. Any photographer with any experience shooting headshots will tell you that having a subject stare straight ahead into the camera is a poor choice. Most people have an issue with one eye being slightly larger and sometimes not aligned entirely with their other eye. The easiest way to address this is to have subjects slightly turn their heads to the side to address it. Also, there were no touch-ups on Conway’s face. She is a fifty-year-old woman, and no photo editing software can make her look 20 years younger, but some simple edits can easily make the photo appear more pleasing.

I took it upon myself to download a copy of the photo and edit in Photoshop. Without the source image, my options were limited due to the lack of detail in the photo file. Still, after only ten minutes, I produced the following image:

The touch-ups are light and realistic, but it certainly is a more flattering portrait of Conway.

It likely would not have bothered me so much if I didn’t see something similar to this in the past. Bias in journalism can, unfortunately, extend to bias in photojournalism. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann ran in the GOP primary for president beginning in 2011. An early favorite when the campaign started, Bachmann was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The editors selected the following picture:

It’s as if the staff at Newsweek went through every image they were given and picked the worst one to use. What initially stands out are her eyes. Some might go so far as to call them “crazy eyes.” People tend to freeze up and look completely unnatural when attempting to pose for these images. It is up to the photographer to persuade the subject to relax. It makes the process move along smoothly as well. Also, the harsh lighting in this photo, like the lighting in the portrait of Conway, is an embarrassment. There’s a very noticeable shadow going across her forehead. This photo too, was not edited in any way.

Bachmann is not an unattractive woman. While the image below has editing that goes a little too far for my taste, the photo is much better than the Newsweek cover. The lighting is soft and even. And the depth of field makes the picture a lot less distracting.

It’s impossible to prove if the bad photos in question were selected for political reasons, but if you look at Michelle Obama for example, whenever she appears on a magazine cover, she looks stunning. Michelle Obama is 53 years old and looks terrific for her age but every portrait of her features very soft lighting, no distractions, and enough editing to remove almost every blemish.

If there were a picture of Michelle Obama that looked anything like the image of Kellyanne Conway or Michele Bachmann, people would lose their minds. If you go here, you can see images of Michelle Obama on covers of everything from Time to Vogue, looking terrific in every image.

Such trivialities are not limited to women. Below is a Time magazine cover of Mitt Romney; the lighting is flat, and it makes him look much older than he is:


Compare the image of Romney to one Time used of Barack Obama. It is extremely well lit, giving the image a mysterious vibe while at the same time making Obama look like a striking figure.

What all of these images remind us is that bias in the media isn’t limited to written or spoken words. As the history of visual propaganda reminds us, images can be as powerful as words in promoting ideology.  And since the clichés are true – every picture tells a story and a picture is worth a thousand words – perhaps conservative men and women in the public eye should start demanding final approval of the images the mainstream media uses of them.  Or at least insist on using their own photographers.

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44 responses to “Behold the Media’s Photo-Propaganda

  1. I first noticed the photos-as-propaganda back in 1992, when Bush 41 was running for re-election against Clinton. One day the WaPo published a front-page photo of Bush which had to be the most unflattering photo shot they could find. He was obviously in the middle of a speech – his mouth was open and the vocal cords on his neck stood out. It was pure propaganda. On the other hand, every photo of Clinton was flattering, showing him as a young, vibrant, likable guy.

    The WaPo’s bias in photos was again evident during the 2008 Democratic primary. Every photo of Hillary made her look old and tired, while every photo of Obama was flattering.

    I think the propaganda using photos is the absolute worst. You don’t even have to read the accompanying article. Just a quick glance at the photo and the subtle idea is subconsciously communicated to you.

    1. Shocking!!!!! A left leaning news paper trys to make a liberal candidate look better. What are you 2 years old. Do you understand anything?

      1. Yes, I understand that the ‘mainstream media’ is left-wing propaganda and has no credibility. Thank you for confirming.

  2. Michelle Bachmann is just a bit nutty looking. As you illustrate, the only way around that is to airbrush the heck out of her. As for Mitt Romney vs Obama, one could equally argue that Mitt is made to look approachable and friendly while the lighting on Obama makes him look sinister. It’s subjective. Finally, you compare a photo of the Secretary of State to one of the First Lady. The latter is always going to be more glamorous – in fact you would HOPE that the Sec of State isn’t depicted in such an unserious way. This article seems to be searching for something to be offended by. Others might use the ‘snowflake’ label, but I’m too polite.

    1. What the author, and professional photographer, did say is the liberal media can display it’s bias not only in how it writes, but in their use of photos, their lighting, posing, and editing. That you find this difficult to understand reflects your lack of a clear understanding of the author, few if any photography skills, and a liberal bias or all three.

      1. I understood his argument, and I argued against it. You engaged with none of my points, giving me nothing to respond to.

      2. One of the first things I learned in photography school is that photography is not truth. It is lies, in the sense that in the act of framing the shot and then printing the image (which in my day included burning and dodging etc.) you can make anything or any one look good, bad, attractive or ugly. In the thirties and forties so-called Frankenstein lighting (harsh lighting from below) made criminal suspects look guilty if not downright evil. Also, shoot several images of anyone and he or she will look terrible in at least one. If that’s the one editors choose to publish they are engaging in propaganda.

    2. 1. What Secretary of State ?
      2. You’ve got the First Lady thing ALL WRONG. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are powerful intelligent women, doing vital work at the heart of their spouses administrations. Her First Ladydom was the key qualification Hillary had for her Senate race. It’s the GOP first ladies, all those Bushes and Nancys and Pats who are airheads and do the cookie-baking. Don’t you know anything ?

      1. “What Secretary of State?”

        Check out the author’s tweets. He compared a pic of Condoleezza Rice to a pic of Michelle Obama. And it’s a false comparison for the reasons I stated.

      2. “Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are powerful intelligent women, doing vital work at the heart of their spouses administrations”

        I see. Thanks for letting me know.

    3. Of course, it’s subjective. The people picking the pictures deliberately pick pictures that are flattering to people they like and pick unflattering pictures of people they don’t like.

      PS: Just being offended doesn’t make someone a “snowflake.” To be a “snowflake” you also need to throw a tantrum, claim to be physically and/or psychologically injured, demand coddling and the levying of drastic punishments. That is what makes one a “snowflake.”

      1. “Of course, it’s subjective”
        Cool. It’s subjective whether someone’s trying to make Mitt Romney look older in the pic or more friendly, and subjectively whether someone’s trying to make Obama look good or sinister in the other pic. Glad you agree.

        ” To be a “snowflake” you also need to throw a tantrum”
        Tell that to all the right wingers who’ll call someone a snowflake just because they’ve been disagreed with!

        1. There are gray areas. I personally had no problem with Romney’s picture and I do not think Obama’s picture looked sinister.

          One can accept that some pictures may be flattering to some and unflattering to others and still note that Left-leaning news outlets tend to use unambiguously unflattering pictures when they cover conservatives.

          As for being caller a “snowflake”, you’re being deliberately obtuse.

          Snowflakes are those idiots squealing about nonsensical imaginary issues like “microaggressions”, “cultural appropriation”, “cisnormativity”, “intersectionality”, and claiming some form of PTSD (I feel “unsafe”!!) because they have encountered disagreement.

    4. Sure, Michelle Bachmann is nutty looking when you use a close-cropped photo of her taken from below with a startled look. That’s the whole point of this article. Newsweek intentionally used an unflattering photo of her, did not do any airbrushing, and cropped it in such a way to make her look crazy. No, you do need to airbrush the heck out of her photo to make her look good, or at least not nutty. You just need to not have the intention of making her look crazy.

      As for the rest of your ‘arguments’ – how does the Romney photo make him look approachable and friendly? How does the Obama photo make him look sinister? Why is the First Lady always going to be more glamorous than a Secretary of State? Stating your opinion is not an argument.

      1. “No you do [not] need to airbrush the heck out of her photo”
        Then how come the author couldn’t find a photo to illustrate his point that wasn’t really over photoshopped? Michelle Bachmann IS a pretty nutty person, after all.
        The whole piece reads like whining, sour grapes and clutching at straws. Republicans hold the three main branches of power and yet the author is moaning that magazines don’t make GOP politicians look good enough in magazines. Boo hoo. Imagine if a left-leaning author complained about something so petty.

        1. Politics is downstream of culture, and progs control the culture and the media, which is why Obama is given halos and Reps are given devil horns on magazine covers. Is this the most important thing ever? No, but it’s not petty, either. Images create a subliminal impression that can be all but impossible to overcome.

          1. “which is why Obama is given halos and Reps are given devil horns on magazine covers.”

            And yet in the examples the author gave, Mitt Romney looks like your friendly uncle, with the caption noting how presidential he looks, whereas Obama is mostly in shadow, looking dead at the camera, looking pretty sinister. Caruso say the Obama pic has a ‘mysterious vibe’ but one could equally say it looks like the villain on a horror movie poster. Ask yourself this: does it look anything like the images Obama’s team ever released of him in publicity material? I’d say no – ‘mysterious vibe’ is NOT what they wanted to get across of Obama. If anything they were playing down ‘unknowability’ as that counted against him.

          2. BTW, you’re the first person I’ve seen who claims that picture of Obama is not flattering to the subject.

          3. Really? This is the first conservative I’ve seen saying Michelle Obama always looks stunning. Mostly they’re snarking that conservative women in the media are much better looking than their liberal counterparts, or worse comparing Michelle to a primate.

            “Why do liberal magazine editors go through the effort”
            What are they going to more effort than than conservative magazine editors?

          4. Yes, they are. I hardly ever see conservative news sources going out of their way to use the most unflattering pictures they can find for liberal men or women.

          5. “I hardly ever see conservative news sources going out”

            I decided to test that out and just went to the Townhill website. I can tell you that they are NOT choosing flattering pics of Hillary. Have they gone out of their way to use the most unflattering pic they could find? Quite possibly yes. Thanks for the conversation, but I’m out now. Bye.

      2. “how does the Romney photo make him look approachable and friendly?”
        He’s got a friendly smile, it’s non-confrontationall, shot slightly from above (as opposed to dead on or staring down at us).

        “How does the Obama photo make him look sinister?”
        Strong lighting, dramatic contrast in shades, he’s mostly in shadow, dead eyes confrontationally staring us down, he’s not quite smiling. Compare it with horror movie posters when they’re trying to make someone look scary or menacing.

        ETA: If it helps, I also photograph people for magazines.

    5. Photos can be subjective, yes. I didn’t say Romney looked “mean.” I said the lighting was flat and it obvious there was no edits done to remove blemishes.

      The Obama photo is only “sinister” to an idiot. It’s a photo that projects strength. Obama’s slight smile is indicative of a look that says, “I know something you don’t.”

      1. It’s not a look that I ever saw in any of the pictures the Obama team released of him, which is odd if ‘I know something you don’t’ is such a positive way of depicting him. They were trying to convince voters who weren’t typically democrat that this unknown and untested guy was trustworthy and ‘one of them’. “I know something you don’t” wasn’t the impression Obama’s campaign were trying to get across. If you asked people who’d never considered voting for a black guy as president before what would convince them, ‘powerful and knowing something I don’t’ wouldn’t be it.

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  4. Retain veto rights over the picture they use in the piece. That’s Rule 2 of “How To Be a Non-Rube Interviewee.”

    Rule 1 is “Tape the Interview.”

  5. Press photos of Condoleeza Rice always seemed to be dark and hardly ever showed her smiling. I suspected at the time that this wasn’t just chance or accident

  6. Studies show that two out of three journalists are just as creepy and dishonest as the other one.

  7. Jay, I read your article (reprinted in National Review) with interest. I agree with your basic point that newspapers and magazines may be deliberately selecting photos that fit their perception of a public official’s personality — angry, crazy, old, or whatever. Or for an official they like, making the person look wise, distinguished, confident, etc.

    However, you had written this: “… some simple edits can easily make the photo appear more pleasing. I took it upon myself to download a copy of the photo and edit in Photoshop. Without the source image, my options were limited due to the lack of detail in the photo file…”

    My own training was to **NEVER** photoshop a news photo to make a person look better, beyond cropping and doing things that were absolutely necessary (lightening up an otherwise unusable too-dark photo, etc.) precisely to avoid accusations that the photos were being manipulated to make news figures look better or worse. One newspaper for which I worked about a decade and a half ago warned that they would terminate people immediately if they were ever found to be doing that, and as far as I know nobody ever did that because nobody wanted to be fired. Other editors were okay with simply setting a “don’t do that” rule without a formal penalty but I don’t know that any had photographers or composition staff who were violating the rules. More recently, as professional photographers have become rarer and rarer in newspapers, editors have seemed to be okay with letting the composition staff use “auto” options on Photoshop since the computer would be making the changes, and would be making them the same way for everyone.

    I realize photos taken for a major profile piece in an office setting may be handled differently and photoshopping there may be more appropriate. Same for the Time Magazine covers.

    I think comparing apples-to-apples, i.e, showing that a news photo of a liberal subject has been photoshopped to make her look better when a news photo of a conservative subject has been run “in the raw” with little or no photoshopping, despite being in the same publication in the same issue or one close to the same time, would go a long way toward proving your point.

    Since you’re a professional photographer and some of these images you’re critiquing are recent enough to be online in high-resolution formats, you may want to examine the photos at the pixel level to determine if they have been photoshopped, and if so, how much. That might provide the needed proof that lots of work was being done to make some people look better while running raw or mostly unimproved images of others.

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