I shudder to think what would have happened that frosty morning of Feb. 15, 1996, if there had been no news cameras following Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. We might never have known about his proficiency with the Shawinigan Handshake.
Fortunately, Mr. Chrétien was not solely in the lens of a friendly cameraman from his staff, trotting obediently at his heels. Instead, the news media had turned out for what seemed like a boring assignment. Flag Day! On a bitter February morning in Hull! I can just hear the grumbling in the newsrooms.
It could have been another public-relations coup for the Liberals, complete with happy flag-waving cherubs, until a protester named Bill Clennett got all up in Mr. Chrétien's face and the prime minister snapped. He employed what The Globe and Mail called "a hand-to-neck combat-like technique," which in the Renzetti household is more commonly known as "throttling." The news crew from Global Television caught it all on camera, took a screen shot, and the next day that photo was on front pages everywhere.
It is the job of news photographers to catch moments such as that one: unguarded, raw and telling. They are there when the public mask slips and the private face shows, when Michael Phelps growls like an angry tiger at his competitor. They are on no one's side but the viewer's. This is especially important when it comes to photographing politicians, for it is in the gap between the mask and the face where the truth often lies.
Why do we even need news photographers any more? Doesn't one image of an event tell the same story as the next? The debate surfaced this week, when it was revealed that news photographers weren't allowed in to shoot the Tragically Hip's final concert in Kingston, Ont. The band's photographer was there. Anyone in the audience could bring in a camera. The K-Rock Centre was too small to accommodate news photographers, according to the band and the concert promoters.
All well and good. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also there, along with his official photographer. What was already a splendid, heartbreaking night – the last concert by a beloved band – became more so when singer Gord Downie called on the country to do more to advance indigenous issues.
All of that was newsworthy. It was photographed by sanctioned cameras and by amateurs and a photograph of Mr. Trudeau embracing Mr. Downie was widely circulated. Were there any more telling or unusual photos of the Prime Minister that could have been taken that night, ones that didn't conform to a specific, uplifting narrative? We'll never know.
The Canadian Press wire service would not distribute the handout photos of the show to its customers, citing editorial independence. As CP's editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice wrote, "Photos are an integral part of news coverage. They tell a story and have just as much impact as words do. … Our trained journalists decide what to shoot, what to write and what we will make available to our clients. The subjects of our stories and photos do not get to make those decisions."
Ah, but they would like to. Politicians and their handlers would much prefer to reach voters' eyeballs directly, through photos posted on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, rather than worry about the maverick lens of a news camera.
The good publicity is worth at least the $6,600 that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's department paid a photographer to snap some flattering photos at the Paris climate summit last year. The value to the Liberal Party of constant images of our young, handsome, yoga-loving, outdoorsy Prime Minister is incalculable, greater even than the value of the country's strategic maple syrup reserve. And that's saying something.
Savvy politicians have always burnished their reputations using the technology of the day. Theodore Roosevelt courted journalists and took cameras along with him overseas and was so adept at using the fledgling medium of movies that Moving Picture World called him "more than a picture personality – HE IS A PICTURE MAN." (Hysteria entirely theirs.) You probably know that Vladimir Putin would like to flatten you with judo without actually having to endure the terrifying prospect of sparring with him.
What's more interesting for viewers – who are also, of course, voters – is when the camera tells a less sanitized story. When former U.K. Labour leader Ed Miliband was photographed eating a bacon sandwich awkwardly (I'm not sure there is another way), the image went some way toward sinking his prime ministerial campaign. If I say "Michael Dukakis," you're probably going to snicker and say, "tank." Gilles Duceppe? Hairnet. I'm not sure Stephen Harper's final political campaign ever recovered from his photo op with those glum little Boy Scouts, who looked as though they had wandered in from a Wes Anderson movie and were bummed to find a political speech instead.
Why not just give the job of photographing public figures over to the public? We all have cameras, right? I'm reminded of my favourite bumper sticker, clearly the product of an irate electricians' union, which warned: "Wiring is not a hobby." Neither is news photography. Let's leave it to the professionals.