Open Mike: The Princess Vanishes

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer


Every now and then a particular photograph draws the public’s attention. Right now it’s a photo of a mother surrounded by her children, all grinning as madly as Americans.

A few past examples of such viral photos spring to mind. In 1994, there was a Los Angeles Police Department mugshot of O.J. Simpson used on the cover of both TIME and Newsweek, two weekly magazines that were major news sources then. Newsweek ran it apparently straight; the one on TIME‘s cover was given to photographer Matt Mahurin to “interpret,” and was labeled, in a credit in small type on page 3, as a “photo illustration.” The changes he made were highlighted, of course, by comparison with the Newsweek version, which was easy, because the magazines were usually displayed right next to each other on most newsstands. In TIME‘s version, O.J. was made to look more sinister and menacing, which of course had racial overtones. Black people were not the only ones who took exception. The managing editor of TIME didn’t seem especially sensitive to the resulting storm of criticism, either, even after having had time to reflect on it.

Another was a picture taken in early 2009 of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s US Airways Flight 1549 floating in the middle of the Hudson River, with people standing on the wing and huddled on the inflatable exit slide prior to rescue. It was taken by one Janice Krums, with a cellphone, the cameras in which were still crude at the time. It was one of the first photographs of the incident to be circulated, an early example of crowdsourced photojournalism before that idea became ordinary.

A third was the 2014 group selfie taken at the annual Oscar Ceremony when host Ellen DeGeneres decided to carry out a carefully planned “spontaneous” selfie shoot with Meryl Streep. But Bradley Cooper grabbed “her” phone, and a whole crowd of movie stars photo-bombed the planned dual-selfie of Ellen and Meryl. The phone wasn’t really Ellen’s—she owned an iPhone at the time, but Samsung had paid a lot of money to be a sponsor for the Oscars that year, so, after delicate negotiations, Ellen had been presented with a tray of Samsung delicacies from which to choose her phone-for-the-night. The resulting group shot was retweeted 750,000 times in 45 minutes and, according to Fred Graver, a member of Twitter’s TV Team in 2014, “broke” Twitter for a short time. (Twitter is now known as “X, formerly known as Twitter.”)


Kate’s Uncle Gary called it “Sleevegate”

The photo of the Princess of Wales and her three children appears to have been clumsily doctored in small but possibly significant ways. As soon as the discrepancies were discovered, the news agencies all issued kill notices. In the ongoing absence of real information, the picture became the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation. The Princess herself appeared to take the blame, tweeting (X’ing), “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.” (Hereby nominated our Quote o’ the Day.)

On the subject of scrutinizing photographs for the purpose of divining whatever truth might lie behind them, I hope you have seen The Commissar Vanishes by David King. (I’m sorry, that’s his name.) Just from the cover of that book you can get the gist of the concept—as Stalin had rivals murdered, which seems a predilection of Russian leaders, he also had them expunged from photographs. The word was that during the Stalinist years, the CIA had a department whose job it was to scrutinize Soviet publicity photographs for clues as to what was going on in the Soviet hierarchy. That book kept coming to mind whenever my glance flitted across a headline about the photo of Catherine and her kids. You couldn’t avoid those. Maybe your library has the book.

Princess Catherine has been out of sight for a number of weeks, purportedly recuperating from a planned medical procedure, which remains the simplest explanation for her absence from view. But a story that’s emerging more lately makes it appear that she might be facing the sort of humiliation that in most peoples’ lives would remain partly or mostly hidden, restricted to a local community or a circle of friends, but which in her case would be laid bare before the entire world. Humiliation magnifies according to the size of the audience, as you might know if you have ever been shamed in public through no fault of your own; I hope you haven’t. I don’t have the heart to limn the details. These people might be royals, but they’re still people. That’s how I choose to read them right now. No direct proof of anything seems to exist—it’s overwhelmingly a matter of gossip and the sort of “facts” that often get agreed upon in the absence of facts. Hence all the attention being paid to a picture that is in itself nothing much to go on. Perhaps a young wife is in private pain in a life that is too public for that. And…so? If privacy is the real reason she’s out of sight, let her have it. Most couples and all families go through periods of difficulty. Being privileged is no protection. They’re still people. Life is not always a fairy tale even for a princess.


Original contents copyright 2024 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Malcolm Myers: “As a Brit and a Royalist I thank you for your sensitive post on this subject. It’s been headline news over here for no reason I can really think of. It has given the conspiracy theorists in the press a field day. The truth will out eventually I’m sure but everyone is entitled to medical confidentiality, even those in the public eye.”

MarkB: “My decades in the ad industry make me certain the unskilled retoucher in her public-facing media team was summarily dismissed, and the art directors given a stern talking-to about ‘attention to detail, regardless of the messaging deadline.’ (The ‘…experiment with editing’ quote is almost equally ham-handed. Maybe her copywriters should also get the boot.)”


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