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Making history: official portraits and open images

Updated 20 March 2018

Betty Boothroyd

When we first published this post back in July 2017 (you can read the full original post below), we had little idea of the impact our portraits project would have. I talked about wanting to develop a clear editorial direction that focused on the people of Parliament, telling the stories of our work through the people that make it all happen.

I talked about an exciting road ahead. I wasn't wrong.

Making an impact

If you missed the excitement across social media following the first release of the now wonderfully well-known #MPPortraits then I'll quickly fill you in:

  • we commissioned a photographer to take MP portraits for the new website
  • we wanted all the images to be available to the public on a Creative Commons license (what the Open Government Licence is based on)
  • we blogged about it to tell our audience what we’d been up to
  • the story went viral, resulting in massive social engagement
  • we achieved an unprecedented level of positive engagement – particularly for a public sector organisation

Making friends and influencing people

We watched the web erupt with engagement around the portraits. The press, members of the public, famous figures, and MPs themselves all joined in, discussing the portraits, giving them tongue-in-cheek back stories, sharing opinions, and having conversations. It was great to see.

My aim was to humanise the public figures responsible for running our country. I'd say we were successful.

And for our next trick ...

Following on from the success of the MP portraits, we started plans with the House of Lords. Finding the right space and the right time can be a challenge in such a busy organisation but - as they say - teamwork makes the dream work, and we were lucky enough to have use of the Moses Room for our first portrait sessions.

Turnout was fantastic, and we managed to capture over 400 members in 3 days. We were pretty consistently busy, and there was plenty of anticipation in the air. The Moses Room is located just near the Lords chamber so it was quick and easy for people to pop in, and we had staff on-hand to answer any questions.

Here we go again ...

We're very pleased to say that the first set of House of Lords portraits are now available. As before, you can download them on the beta site and you're free to use them on a Creative Commons licence.

Here's just a handful of examples - feel free to let me know what you think on Twitter - I'm @DigiBungalow and I've been using the hashtag #PeerPortraits:

Example of House of Lords portraits in a gif

The full post from July 2017

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.

Examples of portraits taken by Chris McAndrew
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 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:

GIF of MP portrait examples

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 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).

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