How Political Photos Manipulate Us
And What We Can Learn From Them About Controlling Our Own Image
Political figures, including Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris, know how to be photographed in ways that promote their own unique image. Political photos are rarely discussed, but they unmistakably reveals how our leaders want us to see them.
What’s more, we can use their strategies to shape our own online images. We can direct the camera’s height to influence whether we look more competent or more friendly in our photos, depending on what message we want to send in our business, family or dating photos.
Here’s how camera techniques – and especially camera height – change the appearance of faces and bodies to create different effects.
TRUMP’S POLITICAL PHOTOS
Former President Trump is usually photographed from below, a technique used by political leaders to look powerful, confident and authoritarian. (It also has the benefit of making them look taller!)
If he is photographed from above, the majesty and authority disappear. Trump automatically looks shorter and squatter when the camera is above him. The top of his head is more visible, which means the camera can pick up any bald spots or thinning hair.
As well as affecting height and hairlines, being photographed from below has a striking effect on the face. Trump is usually photographed looking down at us, so his eyelids cover more of the eyes. His eyes look smaller and narrowed. His jaw, mouth and nose look relatively bigger because they are the closest part of the face to the camera. This part of the face is larger and bonier in adults, so emphasizing it makes a person look more experienced and more dominant.
Here is the former president being photographed with the camera below him. He will speak from a raised podium or have the photographer crouch below him.
If the camera is above, the opposite happens to the face. This camera height can make anyone look less mature, and even petulant.
Authority figures, emperors and ‘strongman’ politicians, who want to emphasize strength, stability and authority, want the viewer below them, so that they look down at them in their political photos and their portraits. Berlusconi and Napoleon are just two of many to use this strategy.
The viewer may feel that they are being looked down on, subtly appraised, diminished or even threatened. This is the Emperor Effect in photography.
We saw this effect in action throughout the Trump administration. Along with expressing dominance and self-assurance, cabinet members were communicating that security, strength and stability were the government’s priorities.
All kinds of public figures make use of a low camera for their political images. It signals triumphs and successes, and any of us can use it in our daily lives to give an impression of confidence and authority.
BIDEN’S POLITICAL PHOTOS
The 2021 transition of power in the US was historic for many reasons, including marking the watershed between two starkly different eras of presidential image making. Unlike his predecessor, President Biden prefers being photographed at eye level.
This is the camera height that replicates what you see when you look at your own reflection in the mirror. It adds intimacy and approachability to a photo. It signals friendliness and warmth towards the viewer. It makes the viewer feel like an equal–equal in height and on equal terms.
Biden also seems more comfortable than Trump with being photographed from above, as seen here taking selfies on the campaign trail. A high camera height changes a person’s appearance just as much as a low camera height.
When Biden’s eyelids are raised to look up at the camera, his eyes automatically look larger. His forehead looks bigger because it is closer to the camera, and his jaw and chin look smaller. His neck is less visible.
This is what the Baby Face Effect does.
It is used by celebrities and by anyone with a selfie stick: a larger forehead, big eyes and a smaller jaw appeal to us because we subconsciously associate them with a childlike appearance, with openness and vulnerability.
Biden is photographed from below much less often than Trump. This is a conscious decision by his team to ensure that his political photographs avoid presenting him as aloof. A low camera risks making Biden appear remote or older, perceptions he wants to avoid.
Biden cabinet members like Pete Buttigieg are often photographed with the camera at eye level, or above, to emphasize youth and approachability as part of their political image. The message is that inclusivity and equality take precedence over authority and strength.
Any of us can use the Baby Face Effect to look younger and friendlier. But it can also make you look younger and less competent. If looking powerful and authoritative is the most important message for you, try the Emperor Effect instead.
HARRIS’ POLITICAL PHOTOS
There are particular issues with how society perceives the physical appearance of women in politics, but women in public life use many of the same photographic techniques as their male counterparts. Female celebrities tend to take advantage of the Babyface Effect to look younger and more approachable.
However, the first female VicePresident has a different image to convey: responsibility and steadiness. Kamala Harris is rarely photographed with the camera above her; she is usually photographed from below when she is on the job, to convey competence and seriousness, and to imply years of experience.
We see Harris being photographed at eye level less often, and she is only photographed from above on family and social occasions.
Like all public figures, Harris, Biden and Trump are making trade-offs to emphasize the qualities they each believe is most important to convey in their political photos. We can choose to make the same trade-offs when we are being photographed, and we can send similar signals about power, authority, competence and approachability. We just need our friend or family photographers to do their bit.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PHOTOS?
Camera slightly below you: you will look more confident and more authoritative. Your eyes will narrow, and your jaw and neck will appear larger and more prominent. You will look taller.
Camera slightly above you: you will look younger, sweeter, more approachable and possibly more attractive. Your eyes will appear bigger, your jaw will appear smaller, and your neck will be hidden. You will look shorter.
How Camera Height can help you look better in photos: Bird’s Eye or Worm’s Eye will show you how changing the height of the camera completely changes your appearance.
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