When I joined PDS as Editor-in-Chief I knew that I had an exciting road ahead of me. I quickly set about developing our content strategy and our new team structure. Now I've turned my attention to our editorial direction.
With a new website starting to take shape I knew that, editorially, I wanted to take some big steps.
I want to draw a marked distinction between how things used to be and how we want them to be in the future.
Making our mark with iconic imagery
One of the ways I want us to develop creatively is with photography. We work in one of the most iconic buildings in the world. We're also surrounded by fascinating people with their own stories and their own responsibilities and relationships to democracy.
I want to give greater emphasis to the human side of this big beast called Parliament. I also want to find a visual style that represents the formidable history of this amazing place and its people. Something that stock images and degraded jpegs can't do.
I want our users to have a more emotional response to the images they see online and to associate a specific style and treatment with our broader work.
Finding the perfect match
I've worked with photographers throughout my career, so I started by looking at who I'd worked with and who was out there that might be the right match for this project. I had a strict creative brief and set of criteria. So with the help of the good folks in procurement I was able to secure renowned editorial portrait photographer, Chris McAndrew.
I chose a portrait photographer over someone more inclined towards architectural photography. This is because I wanted to focus on the people over the place.
Although the buildings of Parliament are iconic, they're already some of the most photographed buildings in the world (and wouldn't it be great to engage users to share their images of the buildings rather than producing loads more ourselves?). More importantly, the building itself isn't actually what Parliament stands for.
We're here to hold government to account. It's not a building that does that, it's the people.
Starting with a plan
Chris and I started out with a brief that outlined what we needed to develop a 'look book' of images. We broke this down into four different 'collections':
- modernity and tradition
- the people that make the palace
- public engagement
- MPs and Peers
We figured that we'd tackle these collections one by one. But with an understanding that as Chris became familiar with the place, they would start to naturally blend into one another as different opportunities present themselves.
We left the MPs and Peers for last, knowing that this collection would take the most organising and the most business engagement.
Plans are made to be broken
So then they announced the snap election. Cripes! That threw the whole plan up in the air ... but with an unexpected result.
The election meant that all MPs would be passing through a certain place, at a certain time. That place being the Chamber as they're sworn in after the election. This gave us an unprecedented opportunity to take an official portrait of each Member without complicated shoot schedules, myriad locations, diary management, or difficult staffing issues.
The election team and the Serjeant at Arms helped us find a suitable space. We were kindly gifted the use of the Reason Room which is just behind the Speaker's chair. Generally speaking there was a lot of positivity surrounding the project.
Not everyone was on board, but you expect that in a big, traditional organisation like this. This has never happened before and that makes people nervous. We did our best to address people's concerns where we could but without shifting our resolve. We were adamant that this was an amazing opportunity and we certainly weren't going to let a little trepidation get in our way.
The big day arrives
I'm not going to lie, the first day of shooting was nerve wracking. We had to negotiate times to get into the room to set up (as you can imagine, swearing in day is pretty busy) but with a little help from our friends we were able to set up with some time to spare. MPs were due any minute but we had just enough time to have a little pep talk with the doormen that were allocated to the area we were working.
Now I'm not one for bigging people up just for doing their job but these guys went above and beyond to help us get the message out about the portraits. I'm confident we wouldn't have had the success we had without them.
The results are in
The project was a success. A big one.
Out of 650 MPs, we photographed around 90%*. In just under two days. We shot over 15,000 individual images with each sitting averaging less than a minute. That's a pretty intense environment to work in. The most important thing for us was to not make people hang around for ages waiting but still have enough time to get a beautiful shot.
I don't know about you, but I'd say we succeeded:
Sharing is caring
Now we have all these gorgeous portraits, what are we going to do with them? Well, first and foremost we're using them for the newly redesigned MP pages on the beta website. You should see them starting to appear on beta.parliament.uk soon.
I'll leave it to the website beta and data teams to talk more about this process. We're also sharing the portraits with each MP individually, and they'll be downloadable from the beta site too. For the MPs we didn't manage to catch this time around, we'll be offering a second set of sittings. These aren't mandatory, but we'll make sure everyone who wants a portrait can have one.
Eventually they'll also appear on Flickr where anyone can download and use them on a Creative Commons licence (although the same licensing agreement applies if you're downloading from the beta website too). This means no more hunting about for images that are often out-of-date, poor quality, or unsuitable. It also means that we should start to see the portraits appearing on MPs' social media and personal websites, and on sites like Wikipedia.
This continuity will help us achieve my goal of getting our users to have a more emotional response to the images they see of Parliament and its people. They can then begin to associate a specific style and treatment with our work.
We're not finished yet
Chris and I still have a lot of work to do to complete our collections. We're also really excited that there's a lot of interest from the House of Lords to carry out a similar set of portrait sittings for them too. To have as many high-quality portraits as possible is the goal and we're really determined to make it work.
If you have any questions please leave a comment below or, for a quicker response, you can always catch me on Twitter.
*Amendment: our final tally of MPs captured in this first round of sittings was slightly different to our estimation. The percentage figure has been updated accordingly (24 July 2017).