Say, “Jeez!”

A smiling politician is a sign something ill is probably afoot.

Alright, we’ll come clean: the image above isn’t real.

It’s the iconic work of activist artists Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps, best known for creating photo-art in response to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But it points to a key move popular with politicians, celebrities, and, it must be said, activists: the photo op (short for photo opportunity), usually carefully crafted to send a specific message.

In political days gone by, messages were simple, as were the photo ops. Message: that a politician identified with voters (photo op: eating simple food in a cafe), was working hard for voters (pushing a shovel into the ground), or cared for their voters (kissing a baby).

You know, things politicians probably don’t really do.

The rules were also simple: smile and look confident, and be aware what’s in the background. Importantly, avoid working with animals or small children – they’re not sensitive to the subtleties of posing with politicians.

Many a politician has learned this the hard way.

In those days such images were invariably created by photojournalists or news photographers, which made staging photo ops that much easier. Let the media know when and where the action would be, and they would be there, camera locked and loaded. Smile, pretend to eat the hotdog, and you’re on the front page.

Nowadays, a cluttered media environment is even more reliant on a shareable snapshot of the news, and nothing beats an image.

This means politicians, celebrities, and activists need to be ever-ready to smile, pose, or attract the attention of passersby; after all, everyone with a smartphone now has a camera on cue.

Unfortunately what is ‘shareable’ is becoming increasingly unusual – when politicians hanging out with adult film stars is nothing new, kissing babies is so ‘90s.

So, be vigilant when examining anything that could be a photo op, and especially those in it. If the action is staged, they’re probably acting out a scripted message, in which case they’re making a calculated move.

[This article originally appeared in the publication Fox Bytes – you can see it here – and on the mindofafox Growing Foxes app in the week of 14 May 2018. Growing Foxes is a school strategic intelligence programme designed by mindofafox. It is being piloted in a number of leading schools in the UK and South Africa. The app serves to support those students currently engaging with the programme. Click on the logo to find out more]

Image: kennardphillipps