Political Images: LOW CAMERA ANGLES & HERO-WORSHIPPING CITIZENS

Low-angle shots, looking up at someone, have traditionally been used to make people appear more powerful, more authoritative, more dynamic, etc. One of the best places to find examples of low angles is in advertising posters for superhero and action movies. Crucial point: In these posters, low angles are used for both good guys and bad guys, BUT: there is is a small but very significant detail that can often make a very big difference in the meaning of a low-angle shot. In low angle shots of bad guys, the person in the image often looks straight down at the viewer. In low angle shots of good guys, the person in the image is more likely to look off into the distance. The logic behind this difference is very simple: Most of us don’t like being looked down on; therefore, the combination of a low camera angle and a downward look is usually negative.

 

How does vertical angle apply in the area of political campaigns? Politics and power are often spoken of in the same breath, so you might expect that the world of political images would be brimming with low angles. However, it turns out that things in the political arena are a little more complicated. To begin with, it is relatively easy to find low camera angles if you look at portrayals of authoritarian rulers, such as Joseph Stalin. Perhaps the most informative example of such an image is a poster in which Stalin is shown as the helmsman of a ship, peering into the distance as he steers his vessel ahead. On the steering wheel in his hands we see the acronym of the Soviet Union, “USSR,” inscribed in Cyrillic letters. By his side, the red Soviet flag billows in the wind.

The type of low angle that we see in this poster of Stalin has become a recurring feature in political imagery. When portrayals of politicians use low angles, they almost always use the kind of low angle that we see in this poster. The politician’s upturned face is shown from the side, looking out of the frame of the picture, into the distance. The nautical theme of Stalin’s poster is unusual, but it helps us to understand the meaning of this kind of low angle. What the upturned face and the faraway gaze say to the viewer is this: Your leader sees the future, and he has the power to take you there safely. Similar low angles (without the ship, of course) can be found in the portrayals of other absolute rulers, including Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, as well as Adolf Hitler.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, this kind of low angle is not confined to authoritarian regimes. As people who have been following the American political scene may have noticed, similar low angles can be found much closer to home. We will take a closer look at this phenomenon shortly. But first, one more comment about the low angles in portraits of dictators. It’s important to emphasize that in none of these portraits does the political ruler look at the viewer. As we already noted in the case of superhero posters, low angles of people looking down are reserved almost entirely for the bad guys.

Outside of the world of dictatorial rulers, political campaigns tend to avoid low angles of any kind. Across the globe, democratic elections are commonly accompanied by pictures of political candidates looking squarely at the viewer, from a position of equality. It may be worth stressing that such images do not always reflect the underlying reality of a politician’s conduct. Rather, the images tell us what a society expects or hopes for. They are vivid reminders of the fact that political values can be expressed just as eloquently through pictures as in words. Nowhere is this role of visual media clearer than in the case of Australia, a country that sees irreverence and anti-authoritarianism as basic ingredients of its culture. Australians have actually talked about including the concept of “mateship” in a preamble to their national constitution. If we wanted a single-word translation of the meaning of the democratic posters we have just looked at, “mateship” might be an appropriate term.

 

Now let’s take a look at political campaign images in the United States. For a very long period of time – more than a hundred years – US Presidential campaign posters have been highly predictable. They often contain both the presidential candidate and his or her running mate side by side, almost always on the same level as each other. One of them usually looks at the viewer. The other may echo that orientation, or may look sideways in the direction of his or her partner – perhaps as a way of tying the two images more closely together.

For an example of this configuration, we can go back at least as early as 1844, the election that brought James Polk to the Presidency. Polk is considered one of the most effective presidents in US history. He is famous for declaring a set of four major goals ahead of time, accomplishing all four goals in a single term in office, and declining the opportunity to run again for a second term. However, in Polk’s campaign poster, it is his running mate, George Dallas, who looks out at the viewer, while Polk turns to look at Dallas.

If we ask the question, “What does Polk’s poster tell us about the power relationship between the politician and the public,” two visual elements stand out: first, the level point of view from which Polk and his running mate have been depicted; second, the level direction of both men’s gazes. These two visual elements remain constant features of Presidential campaign imagery for more than a century.

   

   

One thing does change, though, quite noticeably, over that period. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Presidential candidates are often shown smiling in their campaign posters. Before that date, expressions are almost always serious.

Does this transition to smiling images mean that politicians became more approachable in the 1950s? Do smiles signify greater equality of social status between rulers and the ruled? If anything, the changes in the Presidency since the 1950s have taken us in the opposite direction. Harry Truman, the last of the “unsmiling” Presidents, was also the last President who was able to mingle freely with everyday people after he left office. When Truman retired to his home town in 1953, he had no secret service escort – and he also had no pension whatsoever from his years as a Senator and President. The contrast with the status of today’s ex-Presidents is dramatic. So, to go back to the fact that Presidential campaign posters began to feature smiles in the 1950s: A more likely explanation may be that television, which was a new medium in those days, created an illusion of greater intimacy between politicians and ordinary citizens. Political smiles may simply have served to encourage that illusion.

The advent of smiles did not change the level perspective and level eye-gaze of Presidential campaign portraits. For most of the twentieth century, there are almost no departures from those two visual formulas, and, even when an image does bend the rules, the violations tend to be slight. For example, a poster for Woodrow Wilson and one for Franklin Roosevelt both include upturned eye-gazes, but the effect is subtle, and neither image is portrayed from a low angle. Throughout most of the past two centuries, a period spanning more than thirty Presidential elections, the visual conventions we have been discussing remained remarkably stable.

   

And then, fairly abruptly, that stability began to erode. From the 1980s onward, low-angle views of the candidates began to appear in campaign images, and, during the past three Presidential elections, such views have become a staple component of candidates’ campaign media. The pleasant expressions in most of these low-angle views are a far cry from the grim, cheerless faces that we encountered in the posters of Stalin and other dictators. But the difference between these recent, heroic images of US politicians and the older, more egalitarian portrayals is striking.

What is the meaning of the increasing frequency of low-angle views in US Presidential campaign images? Are the citizens of the United States becoming more susceptible to authoritarian politics? In trying to make sense of any historical change, it’s always wise to be open to alternative explanations. At the same time that portrayals of US Presidents were changing, a big change was taking place in Hollywood movies. Superhero movies, which were quite rare until the 1970s, became a dominant genre in the 1980s, and are even more popular today. Could there be any link between these two trends? What we do know is that the advertising professionals who work on political campaigns often have parallel experiences in the world of entertainment. For example, a prominent member of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign had also been a successful Hollywood scriptwriter.

Does the popularity of superheroes in the movies have any causal connection to the desire for superheroes in the White House? We can only speculate about the nature of the relationship. Just as movie fads sometimes fade away without having too much of a social impact, it’s conceivable that the same could happen with the heroic pictures in Presidential campaign posters. But if there is a deeper meaning in those pictures – if they reflect a growing inclination toward authoritarian leadership – then anyone who respects the Constitution of the United States should be concerned. The Constitution’s meticulously crafted system of checks and balances is not very compatible with images of superhero Presidents.

Interview with Paul Falzone: Digital Democracy vs. Digital Divide

Paul Falzone is the Founder and Director of Peripheral Vision International (PVI), a consulting firm devoted to fostering the development of media for social change. Currently operating primarily in Uganda, PVI is involved in the production and distribution of edutainment programs for audiences in East Africa. With a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School at Penn, Falzone is an award-winning producer of film and video, in addition to having conducted research on the uses of visual media for social advocacy.

In this interview, Falzone talks about the role of digital media in the work that PVI has been supporting in Uganda, with a special focus on a program called Newz Beat, in which the news is delivered by rapping ann9uncers. The program’s existence has been made possible by the availability of relatively low-cost digital equipment, used by the program’s creators to achieve a high level of technical quality. In that sense, digital media have broadened the range of participants in Uganda’s media system. At the same time, though, the distribution of Newz Beat is hampered by the limited reach of Uganda’s electrical network and the scarcity of digital screens in people’s homes. In response to this obstacle, the Newz Beat team has developed a system of physical distribution via DVDs that are exhibited on TV screens in public places.

PM: In what ways is News Beat a reflection of the development of digital technology for the creation of audio-visual media?

PF: To the casual viewer in Uganda, Newz Beat is a big budget production, taking place on a slick, glowing set. The reality is somewhat humbler.  Newz Beat is recorded in front of a plain white wall covered by a green “chroma key” sheet.  The futuristic desk that the anchors sit behind is a folding plastic table also covered with a green sheet.  This “virtual set” liberates the media producers from the physical constraints of the television studio and allows them access to any visual they can imagine (or more accurately, to any visual they can download from the internet).

In the old days of celluloid film, cameras were bulky and difficult to use.  Film had to undergo expensive processing that could take days.  Filmmakers had to “shoot and pray” that the film was not damaged or put in the camera incorrectly and ruined altogether. Lighting was mathematically estimated based on light readings rather than seen in real time. Sound was captured separately, which came with a whole separate set of challenges. By comparison, Newz Beat’s producer, Shadie, films the program with a digital SLR camera.  It shoots in all quality of light and provides him immediate access to the footage.   Its digital storage is so cheap as to border on free. Within only a few hours, Shadie has filmed all of the “raporters” (rapping reporters), downloaded the video to his laptop and is headed back to edit the footage, where the real impact of the digital revolution is even more apparent.

PM: How affordable is the editing equipment that he uses?

PF: Though it has come down radically in price over the years, new professional editing software in the West can still cost a thousand dollars or more.  But virtually all of the software one encounters in Uganda is bootleg.  Even the high end hotels will often be running pirated copies of Windows in their business centers. Yochai Benchler once wrote that “Property is a hindrance, not an aid, when peer production of a public good like information is possible.” Whether you agree or disagree, the fact is that open and easy access to software is a boon to producers of media working on tiny or nonexistent budgets. And it allowed Shadie to overcome the last obstacle to becoming a mediamaker.

PM: What are the challenges involved in the distribution of Newz Beat?

PF: The dark side of digital democratization is a deepening digital divide, particularly in the developing world.  Newz Beat provides us an entry point to explore this tension. After years of postponing, Uganda finally switched from an analog to a digital television signal in late 2015.  This switchover required home television users to either buy a digitally compliant television, a costly decoder or a monthly digital television subscription. While the digital switchover has created more bandwidth for television networks to create more channels, it also seems to have actually decreased the number of people who can receive these channels, because of the extra expense.

Newz Beat can (and does) post its output to YouTube, Soundcloud and Facebook, while also distributing through mainstream broadcast channels, but if most of the audience isn’t online, what is the point? Newz Beat’s raporters can translate the news, but how do they translate transmedia distribution systems in a context that is not only largely pre-digital, but pre-electrical?

PM: How has Newz Beat dealt with this problem?

PF: In response to the challenges of distributing via traditional media, the Newz Beat team has created an approach to distribution that can be described as “parallel broadcast” or “parabroadcast.” In Uganda, ambient television is the primary televisual medium and can be found in buses, bars, restaurants, beauty salons, shops and small pirate cinemas called “bibanda” where customers pay about ten cents to watch action movies and music videos on television screens. Since its launch, Newz Beat has been distributed to more than 35,000 of these screens, many in the most remote regions of the country, via a straight-to-DVD program called Crowdpullerz that bundles Ugandan music videos with Newz Beat, Public Service Announcements and other social content.

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