Fake news: the toe-curling history of the staged photo op
After unconvincing photos emerged of Boris Johnson sharing a romantic moment with his girlfriend Carrie, many onlookers suspect a set-up. But Boris wouldn't be the first, says Ed Power, to try to choreograph press coverage
The snap is taken from ground level, through a discreet tangle of grass.
There are several deck-chairs, a smiling blonde woman and, with back to camera, the man who would be prime minister of the UK. It's a photo with an almost anthropological quality, as if brought to us by BBC Natural History Unit. You imagine David Attenborough chiming in with a soothing voiceover. Behold the Lesser Spotted Boris in the wild.
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This picture, which you have surely seen on multiple occasions by now, is of Boris Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds. It mysteriously manifested on Monday, three days after the British media was convulsed by reports that police were called to Symonds' London flat because of a loud exchange between her and Johnson.
Where did the photo come from? When was it taken? How did it find its way into the public realm? The answer to all of the above is that we don't now. Johnson certainly isn't telling. Yesterday he repeatedly refused to say whether the picture was released in an attempt to salvage his reputation.
"Newspapers will print whatever they are going to print," he said, when pressed in a radio interview. "The longer we spend on things extraneous to what I want to do, the bigger the waste of time."
Was the photograph posed? It certainly seems intended to portray Johnson, who is separated from the mother of four of his children, and Symonds in a loved-up light.
And the timing is of course suspicious. The weekend's reports of a wine-fuelled altercation between the two are seen as undermining Johnson's standing within the fusty ranks of the British conservative party (which will ultimately decide if he is its new leader, and, thus, next occupant of 10 Downing Street).
Yet if the pic was rigged, it may well have backfired. Johnson and his team have been accused of attempting to stage manage their way out of "wine-gate" and the troubling window it allegedly opens into the politician's off-camera conduct.
Either way, he would be far from the first politician or celebrity - with Johnson the distinction is not always clear - to try to smooth a wrinkle in their image with a carefully curated photo-opportunity.
The difficulty is that the effort doesn't always pay off. The sight of privately educated Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy strutting around in his trunks after a swim last summer is said to have enraged Fine Gael activists. They felt it embellished his image as a posh kid utterly out of touch with people who can't afford jolly rugby weekends away with the guys.
Still, a curated snap can occasionally have the desired effect. Amid reports that their marriage had hit in the buffers, David and Victoria Beckham shared on Instagram photos from a half-term ski trip with the family in 2018. "Fun family times and great memories," wrote David on Instagram. "Fun day in the sun!! Kisses from us," added Victoria. Don't you feel terrible for ever questioning their relationship?
The pictures worked because everyone involved genuinely looked as if they were enjoying themselves. The problems begin when the photographs serve only to draw attention to the unhappy story the celebrity is trying to bury. After Hugh Grant was arrested in a car with a prostitute in 1995, for instance, photos of him and his long-term girlfriend Liz Hurley did little to convince all was harmonious (they eventually separated).
And when another British Conservative politician, David Mellor, was accused of an affair, his response was to march his entire family to the gates of their estate and have them grin awkwardly. The intention was to presumably portray Mellor as a family man. Instead it made him look as if he was the leader of a particularly unhappy cult.
Equally unconvincing was an attempt by Meghan Markle's estranged father Thomas to insert himself into the news cycle. He is said to have posed for a series of paparazzi shots in Mexico, in which he reads from a book titled Images of Britain and is measured for a suit (this ahead of the royal wedding he ultimately did not attend).
"This big American guy got the measuring tape out of his pocket and he was saying things in English," the "tailor" told British journalists. "The photographer he was with stepped back to the street and started taking pictures. The big man was showing me what to do with the tape, holding it across himself. I just went along with it. I was telling him the measurements but he didn't write them down or anything."
Smart celebs can make the posed pic work though. As rumours swirled that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were a couple in 2005, the future Mr and Mrs were careful not to be seen together publicly.
Then, in April 2005, pictures were published of Jolie and Pitt holidaying in Kenya with Jolie's adopted son Maddox. It was widely believed that the photographer was tipped off. The message was clear: the biggest story in the celebrity-sphere would be controlled by those at its centre.
Boris Johnson has little in common with Pitt or Jolie, other than that, if you were British, you probably wouldn't want him negotiating Brexit with the European Union. Nor, given that the controversy rumbles ever onwards in the UK, has the picture of him and Symonds gone very far in restoring his image. Quite the opposite in fact - it's made him look desperate and rather flailing. That's the problem with posed pics. You can stage-manage all you like. But once the image is out in the world, you surrender all control over how it is received.