Lodewijk Asscher: Imperfect Beauty
This essay was originally published in my “Social Spy” series for the Dutch magazine FD Persoonlijk. Je kunt dit stuk hier in Nederlands lezen.
Lodewijk Asscher, leader of the PvdA (the Dutch Labor Party), is prolific on Instagram. At first glance, this high volume of activity might seem like something self-absorbed, but his collection of posts gives me quite the opposite impression. There is an uncontrived frankness in the frequency of his sharing, something a little more human, more real, than I’m used to seeing on social media.
Asscher’s visual style is inconsistent. His photos might be pleasant to look at, images of pretty scenery or happy voters, but are they equally as likely to be blurry, dark, grainy, angularly skewed, or shot through dirty windows. This might sound like criticism, but I don’t mean for it to be. Most of the images we scroll past on Instagram are designed to be appear beautiful — any random image we see in our feeds could easily be the result of the photographer taking five nearly identical photographs in a row and choosing the best one, obsessing over cropping, framing, captioning and filtering, and even carefully considering whether or not the image will be heavily liked. Refreshingly, Asscher doesn’t seem to strive for any kind of compositional perfection. His purpose in posting seems to be to share what he’s up to and participate in the community of his followers; the photograph itself is secondary to the inherent status update it provides.
One way that Asscher does work on perfecting his photographs is with tilt shift, a tool buried deep in the editing pane of Instagram, the purpose of which is to focus on a particular area of an image and blur the rest. This can have a variety of effects, depending on the photograph: it can be miniaturizing, dizzying or give a photo a dreamy quality. Tilt shift was most popular in the early days of Instagram, around 2011, when photos shared to the service were more obviously edited than they are today. Asscher’s use of tilt shift recalls those early days of mobile photography, when people had fun checking out the magic that new photo editing tools could work on their everyday pictures. That old-school style of experimental editing has been lost to our new aesthetics — we prefer full-frame clarity, and tend to consider each decision we make about editing and posting more carefully. The hashtag #nofilter is self-congratulatory — unvarnished beauty is desirable.
Asscher posts a lot of selfies. He inconsistently edits these images– they may be tilt-shifted, dark, under-exposed, black and white, or edited with any number of filters. His composition, on the other hand, is fairly consistent. He usually places himself on edge of the frame, in order to split the photographic space with the scenery in the background. On the left, he is at meeting in Luxemburg, sharing a moment in which nothing is happening — the people in the background seem to only be waiting around. On the right he’s on a nondescript street in Old Montreal. The focus here again is on the action of sharing– here I am, and here’s why — rather than the appeal, or even the significance, of the image itself.
Every individual has their own patterns in the types of photographs that they tend to share online. In Asscher’s case, he posts mostly press interviews, selfies, campaign events, groups of voters, and he shares images of the outdoors more frequently than anything else. His Dutch landscapes make for his most beautiful photographs; he likes capturing sunsets, the beach, the vast grey ocean, grassy dunes and windmills. So Asscher’s use of Instagram is not strictly professional, his status as politician does not limit his use of social media exclusively to government business.
However, he does tend to post photographs mostly where he is in public spaces. In the last year he almost never posted photographs from the insides of private homes, or of his family. So he shares freely, as long as he is in public, or on government business. As human, as real, as Asscher’s Instagram seems by virtue of his frequent sharing, every Instagram account is a simply a construction, the tiny fraction of a person’s life they find beautiful, and want to share.