April 21: How likely is a photograph to influence Australian votes?
This Sunday the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (*1968) declared an ‘Easter truce’ in political campaigning against his main rival Bill Shorten (*1967) toward the upcoming election on Saturday May 18. He invited press photographers (but not journalists) to the Easter Sunday service in his place of worship, the Pentecostal Horizon church in Sydney.
This is a strange move that risks inserting a wedge into a divide amongst Australians who as a whole are ambivalent about religion and, as a colleague points out, are actively suspicious of born again ‘happy clappers’.
Results of the 2106 national Census reveal a religiously diverse nation, with Christianity remaining the most common religion at 52% of the population, but falling fast from 88% in 1966 and 74% in 1991, and with Islam (2.6%) and Buddhism (2.4%) being the next most common religions reported. But nearly a third of Australians (30 per cent) reported that they had ‘no religion’ in 2016.
By contrast in the United States of America, declared Christians total 73.7% of the population against only 18.2% citizens having no religion.
For the sake of transparency, I’ll declare my own atheism. Despite briefly engaging, through a liaison, with an evangelical church during my 33rd year where I witnessed people speaking in tongues, I felt no connection with those involved and became convinced, once again, that existence of a god is a scientific impossibility, other than as a psychological delusion, something for those it influences to ‘believe on’.
I’m not alone; the percentage of Australians reporting no religion is accelerating, from 19% in 2006, to 22% in 2011 when an additional 2.2 million people reported having no religion to the 30% now, and more amongst the young, with 39% of those aged 18-34 having no religion, while those in my age group, 65 years and over, are more likely to declare themselves Christian. Pentacostal faith however is experiencing a relative surge in conversions.
The series of photographs has attracted social media comment that largely centres on the gestures it contains, and their resemblance to a Hitler salute, or the similarity with the arm-flinging and fist pumping of a Trump rabble-rousing.
Morrison rounded on such critics;
I mean, it’s disgusting. Australians are bigger than that. And I know that the great majority of Australians are bigger than that. These grubs are gutless and keyboard warriors in their mother’s basement trying to make heroes of themselves.
To be surprised at the reaction might indicate an unsophisticated, or ill-informed, understanding of the Australian electorate. It is hard to credit a seasoned politician with such naivety; more likely there is a strategic calculation behind his invitation to the press. It is the political candidate who, self-evidently, is ‘trying to make a hero’ of himself, and this photo-opportunity was a political stunt to that end, though a risky one in an electorate divided between the right (Liberal) and the left-wing Labor, which is currently ahead in the polls. It is no surprise that the gestures represented might arouse such a visceral reaction from at least half of its viewers. Even Morrison’s hint that such a response is ‘un-Australian’ is coloured by a former Liberal prime-minister John Howard’s exploitation of that label.
Perhaps Morrison or his minders thought that offering an open invitation to photographers rather than journalists was playing it safe…a picture of him in his church could surely project a positive message in such an upbeat environment with not an unbeliever in sight? No protesters, only a congregation of goodly, joyous god-lovers, presided over by a minister who has declared the Morrison family to be ‘good people’. That is without reckoning on the power of the photograph and the skill of the photographer, who in the case of the Australian Associated Press pictures, the ones that have most frequently appeared, is the Greek-Australian Walkley Award winner, Mick Tsikas (*1966), as I know from Michael Rayner.
Through 30 years of experience, starting at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1995, then the Daily Telegraph, Reuters where he worked with and admired Dave Gray (and which recently put off numbers of photographers) and now working with AAP, he can follow his own brief and shoot unhindered by picture editors’ briefs and tight timelines. Newspapers, he says,
“…have become more like magazines, and they rely on AAP and other agencies for the news photographs, though there are still great photographers around, like Jason South at The Age, and freelancers like Dean Sewell at Oculi.”
Over his career, Tsikas has developed a healthy cynicism toward politicians which healthily tints his imagery;
“I see my photos as precise, an effort to capture a certain moment at that instance with accuracy. I am also a very cynical person. I am trying to see with my photos through the politician’s spin and yes, I use humour to do that.” [from a Eugenia Pavlopoulou interview in Neo Kosmos, 11 September 2018]
I spoke with Mick who is currently in Darwin following the PM and he was was clearly happy with what he had achieved at Horizon church. Good Weekend had just done an article on Morrison’s religious life and his response was to admit media access to the church, but only to photographers and not journalists, Mick, another still photographer and the ABC television crew;
“They were clearly very nervous about letting the press in, and gave us no more than twenty minutes, and we could stay only for one song, so it was frantic. I got the wide shot by jumping up on the stage after having got in close. The under lighting is thanks to the TV cameraman’s light, but I knew as soon as I’d pressed the shutter that there’d be comments about Nazi salutes…it wasn’t my intention, I don’t do that, and clearly it’s the kind of image we see of people at religious services like this in America…but they should have known…”
The image in question, the one most widely published, in The Guardian, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Daily Mail, and Courier Mail is another example of his attention to facial expressions and gestures.
“I enjoy political work most of all, I mean, it’s raw and exhausting and a huge challenge, but so worthwhile.
“In my photography I look for three things, in this order; Reactions, ‘Art’, and Signs. Reactions, the expressions of politicians faces as they speak or as they respond to what others, another politician, a person on the street, are saying, are the most revealing. I wait for the moment…it’s not a matter of ‘spray and pray’, making heaps of shots indiscriminately (and which require too much editing), but of anticipation. Sometimes it happens, and other times you have to make the shot some other way, relying on ‘art’; angles of view, shadows and silhouettes, lighting. As a last resort signs are useful, that is, including text or logo or symbols, but it’s the most obvious way of making a point. I rarely direct a photograph; AAP want truth, not set up shots, and otherwise will include ‘posed/arranged by photographer’ in the byline/caption”
Tsikas has been careful in this series to include both the politician and his wife Jenny, but he also takes advantage of the theatrical lighting. Morrison is fixated on musicians on the stage in front of the altar; the place is set up like a disco and is an arena for the orchestrated performance of faith, with boisterous singing, ‘charismatic’ music and the inevitable glossolalia. We can be thankful; photographs, in their silence, set us objectively apart from the audio.
You can see in locating shots from the same set the firelight glow from the stage lighting and the roving white spotlights that halo individuals in the crowd. Right at Morrison’s elbow a harsh bluish television light—and Tsikas’ selective focus—makes the PM the ‘hero’ of each shot. All lend an operatic quality to the imagery on which Tsikas capitalises as he actually mounts the stage to get the long-lens perspective in the shot at the head of this post.
In other words, Tsikas’ portrayal is like that of a political cartoonist. As he points out, he is a photographer and he just gets the photos. It is up to the AAP editor, and those of papers buying them, to editorialise from what he hands over; pictures of politicians from every angle, made at several focal lengths, looking ‘fine’ or like an idiot, in swimming trunks, standing front of a ‘Reject’ shop sign, eating an onion, worshipping a lump of coal, or ‘losing it’ at a senate estimates meeting. Either way, here he is the witness, right at that crucial and dangerous intersection of the religious faith of a politician and his policies.
For the thinking voter, this is a picture that provokes not just a knee-jerk reaction to ‘Nazi salutes’, but further investigation, courtesy of James Boyce, into just what an unholy mix of religion and politics might bring, with a realisation that, with his identification of ‘keyboard warriors in their mother’s basement’ (Australian houses don’t have basements), our leader is signalling madly for help, like a drowning man, from his American fundamentalist co-believers and rightist allies.