Pictures worth a thousand words

I’ve long been a big fan of political “behind the scenes” photography for years, going right back to the iconic pictures of JFK on the campaign trail and in the White House, with his son playing in the Oval office underneath the presidential desk.

In these days of social media we seem to be having a bit of a resurgence of this, with many government departments both here and overseas having Flickr accounts to which they are uploading all sorts of photos, from official portraits to news events, to behind the scenes photos of ministers and officials at work. In fact of all the more headline-grabbing social media channels (blogs, Twitter, YouTube et al) Flickr may actually be one of the most popular and most genuinely useful to government and politics.

Number 10 was one of the first trailblazers in setting up and actively contributing to a Flickr feed. The change of administration hasn’t changed this enthusiasm for the Number 10 photostream and there are some great shots from the Prime Minister’s visits to Berlin, Paris, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales this week. (Photos from Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister can be found in a separate archived account.)

The Number 10 Flickr account has some formal pictures of the first coalition Cabinet meeting and that first joint press conference with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. A historic moment is captured from inside Number 10 in a great shot of David Cameron crossing the threshold for the first time and being greeted by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell.

The Conservative Party have a Flickr stream for their party which includes some fascinating shots from election day and its aftermath, including a historically significant one of David Cameron as he phones Nick Clegg for the first time to discuss what happens next. There’s also a very human shot of the soon-to-be Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne very early on the Friday morning, tired and with his feet up as he scans his Blackberry for the latest email news. We’ve all been there.

For political balance I’ll mention Labour Party photostream (the Liberal Democrats don’t seem to have one) although it seems to have gone a bit quiet at the moment, perhaps understandably. But in fact the best equivalent pictures from behind the scenes at Number 10 during those critical moments of the handover come from The Guardian newspaper, which has a great set of exclusive photos of the last hours of the previous administration.

As the business of government gets back to normal after these interesting and eventful few weeks of politics, the regular departmental Flickr feeds are getting back to business as usual, too. There’s the DECC Flickr feed for example, as well as the Department of Health. The Department for Communities and Local Government’s photostream shows a diversity of subjects with photos of this week’s Home Improvement Pack press conference and a photo from the set of the Daily Politics Show with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles facing up to Andrew Neil.

There’s photos of Business Secretary Vince Cable at BIS, and Kenneth Clarke in full regalia as Lord Chancellor at the Ministry of Justice. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has some splendidly photogenic occasions to work with – including a great shot of the new Foreign Secretary arriving last week. And here’s the feed from the Department for International Development, which mixes the usual mix of ministers and officials with some spectacular shots from the countries and regions where UK aid goes to help those who truly need it.

It’s great to see these shots – it makes the work of government feel somehow much more real and human and somehow more worthy and worthwhile as a result.

That’s even true when applied back to the White House, where this post started, which naturally also has a very active Flickr account ranging from state visits to very tender private moments between the President and the first lady.

But to get back to that ‘behind the scenes’ aspect for a second, one of my favourite shots from the White House stream is this early one of a meeting in the Situation Room. That location should be familiar to us from hundreds film and drama series, but on the screen it always looks high tech and state of the art: the photos reveal instead that it’s a meeting room like so many others that you and I spend half our lives in.

Indeed, if you look closely in the background, you can see a coffee dispenser on a shelf at the back. It’s exactly the same sort we use in most meetings here. It’s a strange and small world when you realise that the President of the United States must have exactly the same problem of coaxing hot drinks out of it, without either looking like a klutz or else sending scalding hot water everywhere!

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