Boring photos kill Obama

A great many photos in the news are very boring. We almost don’t notice how boring they are, we are so used to them. This is a very boring photo of Barack Obama. It is also the kind of photo that appears in the news every day.

Volumes have been written attempting to define what a good and a bad photo might be. But we might come to a simpler distinction. A boring photo just means: a photo from which you can’t learn anything new about the topic at hand, a photo which doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know about already, most likely through words. And a good photo means exactly the opposite, a work which doesn’t just confirm or corroborate some existing piece of knowledge, but actually advances our understanding.

The difference has always existed in ‘news’. Compare, for instance, two rather different paintings of Henri IV, King of France. In the first, by an unknown seventeenth-century painter, the monarch looks kindly, stiff and opaque. We can take it on faith that this is a fair enough likeness, but the portrait does little to enhance our knowledge of the king’s nature. Contrast this with a painting by Ingres in which Henri is shown sprawled on the floor with his children, pretending to be a horse or perhaps a donkey. On the left side of the canvas, the Spanish ambassador has just arrived to see him, but the king is asking for a few minutes more to finish his game. Ingres’s image goes beyond just confirming that Henri existed and that he had a beard: it invites us to consider a statesman’s soul.

We have grown so used to boring photographs, it would seem weird to stop and look properly at a good one for as long as we might study a painting in a museum – say, thirty seconds or more – and with an expectation of learning something distinctive. We have lost much of a sense that photography might have a crucial job to do in terms of properly introducing us to people, situations and countries that we keep assuming we know too well already.

But we should get pickier about photographs, paying for and appreciating great photojournalism.

Here, for example, is a far more interesting photograph of Obama.

It was taken by the talented White House photographer Pete Souza. It is great because we are able to learn new stuff about its subject from it. We know the president can fake things to get elected, but here, touchingly, we learn that he can also fake things to please a child. That opens up new aspects of his nature not usually known. Obama, like his counterpart Henri IV four centuries back, looks especially powerful when he lets himself be the playmate of a child.

We need more pictures like this.