Heels? On a sofa? – that photo of Kellyanne Conway

So, today I saw the photo of Kellyanne Conway, Counsellor to the President, kneeling on a sofa in the Oval Office, while guests were gathered to meet POTUS. Apparently, this has caused something of a stir. I don’t really care about whether she was wearing heels. I was more interested in the photo itself.

My initial reaction was that KAC looked a little like a bored or disinterested teenager does when their parents invite complete strangers round. She’s focused on her mobile phone, seemingly oblivious to large group of people gathered around her. 

That sparked a thought in my mind, about photos and their ability to ‘tell a story’, and how often that ‘story’ can be a misrepresentation.

I think this photo is fascinating in many respects. KAC’s pose is intriguing enough, but look at the whole room. It’s a large depth of field, trying to bring POTUS  into focus amongst a sizeable number of people. I don’t know how tall POTUS is, but he seems to be dwarfing those right next to him. That makes little difference, because the perspective of the shot makes those (mainly men) standing in the foreground much larger, effectively dwarfing POTUS. If the intent of the layout was to make POTUS seem like the central figure, this shot undermines that effect. Even without KAC in the foreground, there’s plenty to take attention away from POTUS. There is a type of golden triangle effect, drawing  the eye towards POTUS, the way he’s stood at the end of the two channels of people, but he’s so distant the impact is underwhelming.

I’m curious about what purpose there was to surround POTUS with women in the background, and keep men in the foreground – if any. The men, and KAC, dominate in a big way. With some of the men looking at KAC, it’s effectively turned her into the main subject. 

There’s a funny casualness about KAC’s position on the sofa. Very much at home and relaxed. In that respect, it does bring a slightly less formal atmosphere to one of the most formal political rooms in the world. 

I’m sure the media and Twitter discourse is focused on that casual positioning and with vaguely sexist undertones, her heels, but for me this is a story of context. In the linked article there’s a second shot as she’s lining up to take a photo with her phone. The context of the image becomes clear; she was in the process of setting up a camera shot on her phone. From the angle, it was probably easier to take that shot from level of the sofa than standing up. 

I find this a useful examination of the subjectivity of photos. Not all of them tell the story we think they do. People’s perceptions of the subject matter as well. Would people have had the same reaction to this photo if it were Michelle Obama? Ultimately, I think the message I get from this photo, it’s story, is one of casualness. Something about KAC’s posture suggests a familiarity about the Oval Office, whatever she was actually doing in that moment. Compare that to the formality of the men around her. It paints a telling scene for the observer, at a glance, of an arena normally so difficult to describe succinctly with words. This of course is what photos manage to do.