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A more intimate aesthetic of politics — on Insta

“Ocasio-Cortez’s uses of Instagram seem to be less about humanizing an individual politician than about politicizing humans; that is, bringing more humans, particularly young humans, into the fold and representing electoral politics as something they have a genuine stake in.”

I predict that in 2019, new forms of candor will characterize political communication.

Politicians’ deliberate cultivation of a relatable, humanizing image has been a feature of political communication since at least the 1860s, when Lincoln posed for portraits reading to his son Tad. In doing so, he presented his public with an image they would read as intimate — one that showed the politician as a private figure.

In some respects, this longstanding practice reached a highwater mark during the Obama years, with Pete Souza’s tenure as White House photographer. Souza’s photographs generated a seemingly casual, behind-the-scenes image of the president as he demonstrated his love for his family (and for Joe Biden), cuddled babies, and confronted the nation’s challenges with rolled-up sleeves and a careworn expression on his face. That face rarely looked directly at Souza’s camera, giving spectators the impression that the president was too concerned with more pressing matters to pose. Paradoxically, these images served as a fairly effective means of limiting unflattering imagery; they satisfied a public desire to peek behind the facade while presenting the idea that Obama was every bit as appealing in his private moments as he was in his public ones.

Such tendencies have been largely incompatible with the aesthetic regime of the Trump administration. Trump and his team operate with a far more rigid view of what constitutes an acceptably presidential image, seemingly unaware that images that aim to project invulnerability can themselves beget vulnerability; the rigidity of these images dares spectators to look for cracks in the facade, and those cracks aren’t very difficult to find. As a consequence (and for a slew of other reasons too complex to get into here), many of the most enduring and widely circulated photographs of Trump’s presidency have been embarrassing ones.

But it appears that a new kind of candor is afoot, and it stands to undermine both the liberal humanization of Obama imagery — which largely extended existing traditions in presidential imagery into the social media age, rather than introduce a new model — and the clumsily controlled visual output of the Trump administration, which so far seems predicated on an understanding of photographs of the president as a hazard rather than an opportunity.

As 2019 begins, politicians who embrace the discursive and episodic qualities of social media platforms like Instagram are beginning to offer up new varieties of relatability. The most noteworthy example is Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who uses Instagram Stories not only to present behind-the-scenes peeks of her experiences as a newcomer to Washington to her 1.1 million followers, but also to walk those followers through aspects of the political process normally invisible to them. In doing so, she yokes her personal appeal to an inclusive pedagogical goal and draws attention to policy details that might otherwise be dismissed as arcane but are rendered compelling through fast-paced, bite-sized stories. These ephemeral stories are communicated with urgency, enthusiasm, and captions that enhance their accessibility, and they’re not infrequently punctuated with an emoji flourish.

This is a decidedly millennial approach, and it has different implications both aesthetically and politically than the candor that has come before. Rather than being captured unawares by a professional photographer, Ocasio-Cortez holds her phone herself, addressing her followers directly through her front-facing camera, but also responding to their questions, reposting their comments, and taking informal polls — making dialogue less an exceptional part of her online presence than a nearly constitutive feature of it.

Though it’s too early to assess the implications of this approach, Ocasio-Cortez’s uses of Instagram seem to be less about humanizing an individual politician than about politicizing humans; that is, bringing more humans, particularly young humans, into the fold and representing electoral politics as something they have a genuine stake in. Ultimately, this may be a more meaningfully inclusive form of candor than what has come before.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary.

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