Stefan Rousseau is the Chief Political Photographer at PA Media. When Stefan first joined PA Images in 1993, variety was the order of the day. Whether it’s sport, politics, business, entertainment or the weather, PA needed to cover it all. And Stefan had the eye to see it all.
But that all changed when Stefan was assigned to cover Tony Blair’s trip to India and Afghanistan in 2003.
“It was exciting,” Stefan explains. “You get to fly on the Prime Minister’s plane and you’re often the first off the plane as well because we needed to get ready and set up. It was glamorous.”
It certainly does sound exciting. After all, politics has taken Stefan all over the world. Wherever the British Prime Minister goes, Stefan goes. But while the PM is talking to various officials, greeting the public and delivering speeches, there’s a bunch of behind-the-scenes jobs that Stefan needs to do as well as photographing the happenings of the day.
Everyone was ready to go, the pilot, the crew. But the photos had to be filed and sent that day, not tomorrow. So I had to finish working at the bottom of the steps to the plane with David [Cameron] chatting to me while I held the entire plane up.
Holding up the Prime Minister
There can’t be much downtime, I ask Stefan. “There isn’t,” he concedes. “You’ve just got to knuckle down despite all the activity and excitement”. But the photographer plays an integral role in the roving world of politics. The pictures taken aren’t just for news outlets or the public. They’re for the political parties too.
“On the final day in Libya with David Cameron, I needed to file and send the images off to PA. We took a helicopter from Tripoli to the airport because the roads were dangerous. There wasn’t much time, so I had to edit while on the helicopter with my legs hanging out the side.
“By the time we reached the airport, I still needed more time. Everyone was ready to go, the pilot, the crew. But the photos had to be filed and sent that day, not tomorrow. So I had to finish working at the bottom of the steps to the plane with David chatting to me while I held the entire plane up.”
David Cameron understood the importance. He needed the pictures on tomorrow’s front page just as much as Stefan and the national papers.
In many ways, Stefan could be seen as an intimidating figure for new Prime Ministers. Not because of his character; he’s thoroughly amiable and accommodating. But he’s an experienced photojournalist and seen many Prime Ministers come and go.
While incoming Prime Ministers deal with the magnitude of their responsibility and the intensifying limelight; for Stefan, it’s another person ready to effect their vision on how the UK should be governed.
Trust is essential on both sides for the relationship to flourish. But like everything in politics, it’s calculated.
“When Tony Blair was in power, they had a massive majority. This makes them much more relaxed, and kind of let us do what we want.”
We go through successive PMs and a pattern quickly emerges. Tony Blair prioritised looking good for the cameras while Gordon Brown wasn’t that interested. David Cameron wanted good pictures too but then Theresa May didn’t care that much. And we all know how much Boris likes to perform.
When looking through the archive, this pattern is reflected in the imagery. There are far more photo ops with the likes of Blair, Cameron and Johnson compared to Brown and May. Stefan tells me Cameron was quite relaxed to begin with, but things did become more controlled and paranoid towards the end of his tenure.
“We were with David Cameron at a beach resort in Mexico. He was doing interviews for TV and other bits for media. But they closed all the curtains because there were palm trees outside. They didn’t want it look like he was having a great time. Cameron was also careful to avoid being photographed with champagne in his hand.”
Things are not always what they seem
That’s the thing with imagery. Everyone always says pictures don’t lie but they do. Take this image of David Cameron for example.
“I didn’t think much of this image,” Stefan confesses. But Twitter loved it! There were all kinds of amusing captions with the consensus saying that the girl was bored or tired of listening to David Cameron.
The truth is, she was shy. “There were quite a few photographers in the classroom, which as you can imagine was quite intimidating for the children, especially for the little girl who was simply hiding her face from the cameras.”
But it is a picture that got people talking. And in politics, where engagement is consistently lower than it should be, that can only be a good thing.
“The next day, I was on the battle bus with Cameron to cover the election trail. I kind of hid because I thought he’d be annoyed [about the picture] but he said Sam [David Cameron’s wife] found it funny so he was alright with it in the end.”
A mutual relationship
The relationship between politics and photojournalist can sometimes be a sensitive one. But at the end of the day, they both need each other.
“I was in Ethiopia with Tony Blair in 2004. The trip was a bit chaotic, the staff were a bit all over the place, and so it just wasn’t producing good pictures. One day, in the middle of a field, Blair came up to me and asked, ‘Are you getting what you need? Are you happy?’
“And I was like, well not really because of this and that. So he went away to speak to his special advisor who quickly walked towards me and was like, ‘Right, what do you need?’”
When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom goes out of his way to ensure photographers get what they need, it highlights just how important imagery is. Not everyone is into politics. The fine details are dry, and movement is slow. But everyone will quickly glance at a frontpage image. And if the PM isn’t looking stately, or authoritative, or whatever the flavour of the day is, that could have an effect on their popularity.
Furthermore, the pictures are available for anyone to purchase. And that means political parties can use poorly timed images against their rivals.
“On this day, they needed to do a TV segment. So they had Gordon Brown walk down a corridor and through this door. But it was spring-loaded. They needed someone to keep the door open for TV. So his two aides knelt down, and I quickly saw how ridiculous it looked, put a wider lens on and snapped this.”
Like Cameron with the shy pupil, it didn’t really have an effect on the campaign despite gaining some traction on social media as another iconic Stefan Rousseau image. But Stefan tells me the Conservatives were quick to try and capitalise on it.
Gordon Brown was due to arrive in Manchester for a leaders’ debate the next day, so the Conservatives bought the image and stuck it on a billboard saying, ‘Welcome to Manchester Your Highness.’
Images get people’s attention. They document important events. Yes, they can be misconstrued or even misused. But they tell stories and have a massive effect on public perceptions.
It’s why Stefan finds it increasingly concerning that the Government uses their own photographers more and more. “When I first started, Downing Street didn’t have any photographers,” Stefan tells me. “Now they have three. It means we’re not always getting invited to certain events.”
It sets a dangerous precedent as you start straying into the realms of propaganda. Especially so because the images are being used by the media. And when you compare imagery taken by independent photojournalist with in-house photographers, it’s clear as day which is which.
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