By now you have probably read about the that’s-not-the-cover-photo-we-agreed-on uproar on Photofocus, social media, on TV and on newspaper websites. Read The New York Times critic’s notebook. This is such a non-story that I am having a difficult time believing that it has become even a small “thing.”

Editors rule

Editors make choices that benefit their medium — magazine, website, newspaper, whatever. A cover photograph has a job to do. It has to catch the eye of its view and entice them to click the article or purchase the magazine. That’s why publications almost always reserve the right to choose their cover photo. Initial thoughts on where each photo will appear in an article or on a cover are just that, first takes.

As the photos are studied and the words of the article mesh with them, the right image for the cover often is not the initial choice. When there is more than one absolutely amazing photo, sometimes both get covers. Editors rule and their decisions make it onto websites and in print. This might happen with a second printing of the February issue of Vogue. There are rare times when this is not the case and is covered in writing when the work is commissioned.


I won’t spend any time rehashing these articles. Rather, it’s time to get real about how photographs tell stories. These two pictures of Vice President-elect Harris tell two evolving stories eloquently. The full-length portrays her as she was seen on the news during the campaign. The colors of the background and her pearls pay tribute to her Howard University sorority.

The initial cover leak. Tyler Mitchell / Vogue.

Frankly, I love the story she tells with her skinny pants and Donald Deal jacket. The story I see is of an American who knows who she is as a human being. It’s a lot of fun to see.

The more formal portrait tells us that she is confident and comfortable in her soon-to-be-position as the second most powerful person in the country.

A second digital version of the cover. Tyler Mitchell / Vogue.

Telling stories is what photographers do. Every image we make is open to interpretation by the people who view it. All of us, whether we are photographers or not, interpret photos based on our personal experiences, beliefs, aesthetics and perspectives.

To state the obvious, people are complex subjects. There are sides to them that a single photo can’t show. The Vogue photos of Kamala Harris are a great example. On one hand, there is a formal portrait that evokes calm, reassuring confidence. The other where she sports her Chucks shows her innate fun and playful side.

Styling matters

Styling influences the story a photo series tells. Choice of wardrobe, jewelry and the scene are all elements that paint a picture of the subject. Take Lady Gaga as an example. Her style for each of her performances sets a visual tone to go along with her music. Watch Taylor Swift videos and you’ll see the same thing. Katy Perry and Ariana Grande do this as well. I am sure that all of these artists are very involved in the styling of their looks.

“Lady GAGA, GMA Concert, Lady GAGA, GMA Concert, Lady GAGA GMA Concert,” by TJ Sengel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So what’s different in the photos of our Vice President-elect? Absolutely nothing. Ms. Harris chose both outfits and the backgrounds too. She chose her signature pearls for each shot. She styled the photos and both reflect different sides of her. Both images tell us something about her. The photographer, Tyler Mitchell, did his job of storytelling eloquently.

The best part of this “controversy” is that it will not rock the foundations of our republic as many others recently have done.