Campaign Visuals In The Age Of Facebook

An Interview with photographer Stephen Ferry.



Stephen Ferry is a freelance documentary photographer based in New York City and Bogotá, Colombia. Ferry's work has received numerous prizes and honors, including two World Press photo awards. In more than 20 years of international travel, Ferry has concentrated on long-term reportage on issues of historic change and human rights. His 1999 book, I Am Rich Potosí: The Mountain that Eats Men (Monacelli Press), documented the lives of silver miners in Potosí, Bolivia, over an eight-year period. Since 2000, Ferry has focused his work on Colombia, carrying out assignments for GEO, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and The New York Times. He is currently based in Bogotá and is dedicated to long-term coverage of Colombia's civil war. In this Q&A we discuss his image, shown here, taken January 7 at a campaign stop in Rochester, New Hampshire.

Michael Shaw: Given the range of campaign images I've been looking at lately, this one you made the other weekend, just before the New Hampshire primary, is substantially different. This has a completely different kind of energy.

Stephen Ferry: It seems a little funny talking about my own work this way, but of all the photos I shot in New Hampshire, I think this one speaks to something new and essential going on. Although Obama was the subject, it says less about him than about this social moment in time. Specifically, it seems to me there's a "Facebook zeitgeist" in this campaign.

MS: What do you mean?

SF: First of all, it's about equalizing. Notice how his smile and her smile are lit by the same kind of light. Both are subject to the same cameras that are in everybody's hands nowadays. That, to me, speaks to the Facebook experience. Once they are posted there, all photographs are equal on Facebook. The only way they differ in importance has to do with how many people connect to them.

MS: But it doesn't seem like Obama and the girl are together so much as just sharing the same space.

SF: That quality is Facebook, too. If you look at one face then the other, it looks like a collage. Notice how he occupies a rectangle in the upper left. Really then, it's like you're looking at a screen. It's like he's a post, or a picture on a Web page. You don't feel his three-dimensionality. If I did a time exposure shot of a computer screen, these could be the faces that would come up. It's as if both are already posts on a Facebook page.

MS: As a supporter, though, she and Obama are connected, right? After Obama won the Iowa caucus and was believed to be way out in front in New Hampshire, the coverage was all about how people were being swept up in the energy of his campaign.

SF: I think the photo is also about that. Notice there are three hands of cameras in the picture, with the middle one blasted out with flash. There is no interruption between the over-exposed area of Obama's forehead -- also blown out by a flash -- and that hand. It's like we are witnessing an energy field or rush of fire going from Obama's head downwards out of the frame and connecting to those around him, or that a pure energy could equally be rushing upwards into him.

This idea of lines, wires, cables also applies to the girl. If you look to the left of the girl's chin -- do you see those grayish vertical lines? Playing on the idea of energy, to me at least, they look almost like pipes or cabling. Also, notice the strap hanging down from the camera above the girl's head, like a cable?

There is an energy also flowing into and coming out of her, from her mouth, from her smile. It's like she's connected -- by virtue of being photographed -- to the energy field too, but not with the same intensity as him. He's definitely most connected ... like he's got broadband.

I associate that blazing energy which connects him and her, and which flows in and out of the frame, with the Internet. So yes, the way they are connected is through the energy field that I would call "the spirit of Facebook," the phenomenon of instantaneous connectivity that defines this campaign.

MS: When you say "broadband," it has a feeling like he and the girl are electrons, like they are already online.

SF: Well, that's the point. For me, this is a photograph of a transmission: from subject into camera and from camera onto the Web.

We see Obama lit by the flash of one of the cameras there. So the moment we see him is simultaneously recorded in one or another of those devices. And you know that as soon as these people with the cameras get home -- if not sooner -- that stuff is going on the Internet. Technically, in fact, it is already possible, for the first time, for those pics to have posted to the Internet simultaneously with the instant I took this picture -- if those cameras were equipped with WiFi-enabled Flash cards. This is very, very new right now, but everybody will have them soon.

With these cards, you can shoot and post at the same time. So, what I was shooting, in real time, could have easily already been a screen shot. You can call it the elimination of the last remaining gap in the "immediacy circuit."

Or you can call it Facebook.

--Michael Shaw is a practicing clinical psychologist, but American Photo knows him through his popular, politically charged image-analysis blog, . With his adept dissection of newswire photos and his Reading the Pictures feature at the Huffington Post, Shaw has cultivated an outspoken voice and a loyal following within the blogosphere. We are happy to bring his insights to our readers in the form of this online feature as well as a guest post on our State of the Art blog.