Framing the political portrait

NZ Listener – Photo David White

The cover portrait and Guyon Espiner’s lead story in this weeks Listener raises the issue of framing photography. David White is one of New Zealand’s leading photographers and has done a number of portraits of political figures. His latest ones of John Key are certainly noteworthy for their contrast to the commonly held perception of the Prime Minister as mr “smile and wave”. The cover photo and the shot inside of him standing feet apart with his hands in pockets show Key with a serious, almost aggressive face and a hint of a sneer. The cover photo is juxtapositioned with the seemingly incongruent quote “I’ll be positive till the day they drag me out.”

Photography has a unique ability to capture a pivotal moment or expression, illustrated by the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The danger is the staged portrait can hide both an agenda from the photographer and particularly in the case of politicians, the subject.

Did Key want to appear as he does to dispel the “smile and wave” persona or are the somewhat cold eyes and offset mouth the real Key inadvertently revealed from behind a popular mask? Have these two images been selected for editorial reasons to add weight to the words of Espiner and the accompanying piece by Joanne Black portraying Key as the Trader-in-chief, in reference to his money market background? Were these photo’s for instance the only two that were so serious from perhaps a dozen less serious ones?

I suspect the answer is all of the above. Key clearly revels in his “smiling assassin” reputation and there is  a harder edge to the National Party’s agenda in its second term. We can’t know what the other photos were like, if Key was asked by White to pose as he did or whether Key adopted his expression and stance of his own volition but I would say these two photos were chosen for the pictorial evidence they provided for the article.

Apart from the photos there are several other points to take from the article. The first of these is the subtle transformation of Espiner since he left TV1. There was criticism of Espiner, and Duncan Garner at TV3 that they were too cozy with Key and the Prime Minister’s Department, particularly when they were “selected” to accompany Key to Afghanistan. Espiner was notably more questioning in his Q&A interviews on Channel 7 than on TV1 and has extended this to his new role at TV3 and in the print media. So too Garner. This may well be part of a well known phenomenon of governments getting a far less easy ride in their second term.

The second point is the continual references to Key as an ex forex trader, as not being afraid to cut losses and having an understanding of the economy. Anyone familiar with the financial markets and the financial firms Key worked for (Bankers Trust and Merril Lynch) would find the suggestion that provided the right experience for making policy for a small democratic mixed economy as laughable. Key is openly amoral when it comes to making money and had no hesitation in his client’s and his own self interest in taking huge positions against the NZ dollar. Does speculating in forex and working at the highest levels in a failed Wall St titan make you a capable economic manager? The GFC would suggest not.

I would have thought Key’s main strengths were his people management skills and his personal wealth which provides what is colloquially known as “fuck off money”. Instead we have seen a poll driven PM seeming more interested in his popularity than any strong vision for New Zealand. His amorality and belief in a status quo that has served him so well personally preclude any major changes to the New Zealand economy and its direction. I suspect history will not be kind to Key or his other “extend and pretend” counterparts overseas.

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