The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A photo of the PM, not quite picture perfect
- Nothing wrong with the idea but the treatment could have been better, say spin doctors and photographers

New Delhi/Mumbai, Jan. 5: Surely, the Prime Minister deserves better.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee as poet/philosopher/statesman — not necessarily in that order — fetched up in newspaper offices in a photograph on New Year’s eve, he went straight onto the front page with his musings. Very convenient.

Not often is a Prime Minister photographed watching the setting sun from a verandah of the Taj Exotica in Goa, with three glasses on a table by his side.

There was some grumbling about the quality of the photograph and about the colour of boring predictability splashed all over it, still — to the credit of the Prime Minister’s publicity machine — it got full play in the press.

It was the second precedent this Prime Minister had set. The first was, of course, the New Year’s eve musings, which started on his holiday in Kerala a couple of years ago.

The picture was taken by a freelance photographer hired by the Goa branch of the government’s Press Information Bureau for the Prime Minister’s Office. Needless to say, access to the Prime Minister during the private holiday was also arranged by Vajpayee’s entourage and was designed to advertise his ‘philosopher persona’.

“It was timed to release with the musings,” said a PIB official. “It portrayed the Prime Minister in a reflective mood as he pondered over his writing (musings). Besides, he is a poet himself.”

The photograph accompanied the text of the Prime Minister’s essay titled “Let us celebrate — And strengthen our Indianness”.

“We were aware that this is an unconventional photograph. Had we released it by itself, it might not have been noticed so much. But because it was released with the ‘musings’, it gives a complete story,” the official added helpfully.

Does it' Ask professional photographers and spin doctors.

“The picture composition is very static,” said Raghu Rai, a celebrated photojournalist. “It’s a plain little snapshot of him. It lacks the experience of being there, in Goa, the experience of the seascape. Why has the Prime Minister gone there' Because space is so tight, because people want openness. Even if you accept what the Prime Minister actually wrote — about the bigness of Hindutva — that is not captured by the photograph. As an image-building exercise, the photograph does not enhance our experience of him.”

Pictures have been used as image-building devices for long — and at times crudely — by US Presidents. When Bill Clinton had his tail on fire from the cigar lit by the Monica Lewinsky affair, a picture appeared magically of the President and his wife Hillary in swimwear doting on each other on the beach.

The White House the next day threw a fit about intrusion on presidential privacy. Few believed the White House story. Most believed the photograph to be a White House leak.

Some would call it a crass attempt to fool the American people who set such great store by family values. But there was nothing crude about the photograph — it looked right out of a Hollywood set, picture-postcard-like.

“In Goa, everyone looks relaxed except our PM. He looks as if he has a stiff neck and the sunset is equally depressing,” said former ad guru Alyque Padamsee, who calls himself a communications specialist now.

PIB sources, however, claimed there was “widespread appreciation” of the picture “because seldom has the Prime Minister been caught in such a philosophical mood as this time, though he has been on holidays earlier”.

The government publicity machine’s memory of Prime Ministers showing up in a picture holidaying on New Year’s Eve on a beach is not sweet. Rajiv Gandhi was caught dancing on the beach in the Andamans with his friends, Amitabh Bachchan included. It kicked up a huge controversy: first, because it was not quite an “Indian thing” to do and second, because of the government money spent on ferrying and entertaining his entourage.

Ace fashion photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha, who was in Goa when the Prime Minister landed for his year-end holiday, felt that Vajpayee, the gourmet and the poet, could make for memorable pictures by the sea.

He said every chef at the Taj hotel where he was staying was talking about Vajpayee’s love for seafood and bekti and prawns. Rajadhyaksha, who doesn’t shoot politicians and religious men and women as a rule, said if he were to take a picture of the Prime Minister in Goa, he would first engage him in conversation about these things. And about poetry, which also comes naturally to Vajpayee and would be appropriate for Goa. The photograph taken would be “involved” and “candid”, showing something of the person Vajpayee is.

Pritish Nandy, editor-turned-film producer and MP, perhaps hit the nail on the head. He said the picture looked “false”.

“Vajpayee has been a good Prime Minister, but his PR team is fourth rate,” said Nandy.

“They have no knowledge of how to promote him. What they need to do is to design a strategy that works.”

And there’s one more thing. Next time, mind the technical quality of the picture.

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