The story behind one of the most significant pictures of the year

When photographer Stefan Rousseau picks his top five political pictures of 2020, this one stands out for how ordinary it seems.

Boris Johnson holds his face at a Downing Street coronavirus press conference on 9 September. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Boris Johnson holds his face at a coronavirus press conference in Downing Street on 9 September. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

At first glance, it’s simply a picture of Boris Johnson holding his face at a press conference.

However, for Rousseau, the chief political photographer of the PA news agency, it holds a deeper meaning.

The briefing on 9 September marked the first time Downing Street allowed an external photographer to attend a press conference since March, with the government having cited coronavirus rules.

Rousseau, who was the photographer on duty that day, tells Yahoo News UK this approach had been “touching on propaganda”.

“They let a broadcast camera in every day,” Rousseau says.

“We saw it as an excuse to keep us out, as they still had their own photographer doing pictures and issuing them to the papers. We weren’t happy about that because it’s government edited, government controlled.

“It’s touching on propaganda, with no independent witness.”

That’s where the picture of the prime minister touching his face comes in.

“I took this picture of him looking concerned, says Rousseau (you can see his four other favourite pictures of 2020 further down this page). This was when the infections were suddenly going up, a bit of a tough time for the PM.

“One of the picture editors from The Times tweeted it, making the point this was the difference between a press picture and a picture taken by Downing Street’s photographer.

“It was the same event. The Number 10 picture was of him looking prime ministerial, chatting, looking confident.

“Then there’s my picture of him looking concerned. This is the difference you get when you allow a news photographer in there. Otherwise it’s a sanitised image and it’s important to point that out. You get the full picture.”

Here are Rousseau’s four other picks from an extraordinary year…

‘Is that really a whip?’

Gavin Williamson sat at his desk, in front of a whip, on 17 August. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Gavin Williamson sat at his desk, in front of a whip, on 17 August. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Few pictures of politicians sitting at their desk become a story in their own right.

In this image, education secretary Gavin Williamson – then at the centre of the A-level results fiasco and facing calls to resign – glares menacingly at the camera.

And then there’s another menacing feature of this photo: a whip perched on his desk.

There was speculation at the time that the whip was a distraction tactic to deflect attention from the A-level crisis. Others said it was Williamson’s reminder to enemy Tory MPs that as the government’s former chief whip, he knew their secrets.

Rousseau, however, thinks Williamson and his team were in fact completely oblivious.

On 17 August, with Williamson the main story of the day, Rousseau had been tasked with “doorstepping” him in the hope of getting a shot of the education secretary leaving his office.

Watch: The Conservative Party in 2020

He went one better, convincing Williamson’s team to allow him inside the office.

“He was chatting, having a cup of tea as I went into the room,” Rousseau recalls.

“I started to work out how I could do this picture. I noticed this whip on the desk, which I thought was a bit odd. I didn’t say anything to any of the advisers because if I drew their attention to it, they might have removed it.

“They suggested I do the picture of Williamson at the front of the desk but I wouldn’t see the whip. I asked if he would mind just sitting at the desk, not mentioning the whip, obviously. He obliged, sat there and got it in the picture.

“He gave this great expression looking down the lens, looking very menacing, for want of a better word, with a whip in front of him.

“All the time I was looking at it out the corner of my eye thinking: ‘Is that really a whip? What’s that all about? Is the education secretary harking back to the old days of corporal punishment?’”

Rousseau said he was inundated with messages from friends and colleagues asking if it really was a whip.

Of the ensuing fallout, he adds: “He used to be chief whip and that’s why he had it. That’s a thing they do, apparently. The chief whip gets a whip.

“Apparently it’s on his desk all the time, so if he’s used to it, it probably didn’t dawn on him that it was going to be a talking point.

“I know for a fact that after the picture came out and was published everywhere, discussions were had in the Department for Education asking if it was really a good idea to let a photographer take that picture. I think they regretted it.”

An ‘awkward moment’ with Prince Harry

Prince Harry meets Boris Johnson on 20 January. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prince Harry meets Boris Johnson on 20 January. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

On 20 January, before the UK was in the grip of coronavirus, Rousseau was dispatched to the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London, where he captured this moment between Prince Harry and Boris Johnson.

It was 12 days after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced they would be stepping back from royal duties, and an awkward-looking Johnson is pictured with his arms outstretched mid-conversation.

“These are the sort of pictures you get with Boris Johnson,” Rousseau says. “There he is with the prince, but it’s the classic body language of: ‘I don’t really know what to say.’

“It’s the awkward moment where they are greeting each other and he’s just kind of stretching his arms out. You look at the expression on Prince Harry’s face and it’s as if to say: ‘What are you doing?’

“Most people are presented to Prince Harry and shake his hand, possibly bow and show huge amounts of reverence. It’s just an amusing picture.”

It’s also why, Rousseau says, “you can’t take your camera away from [Johnson] for a minute”.

“He doesn’t care if you capture these daft moments, so you’ve always got to be on your guard.”

Keir ‘natural in front of the camera’ Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer prepares his conference speech in his parliamentary office on 21 September. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer prepares his conference speech in his parliamentary office on 21 September. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

In coronavirus times, party leaders still have to meticulously prepare conference speeches – even when they are delivered to an empty room and a single TV camera.

Rousseau was given access to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s parliamentary office on 21 September ahead of his conference speech in Doncaster the following day.

“He walked around his office with his papers in his hands reading through his speech. This was just a moment where I suddenly noticed I could see him reflected in a mirror. It just makes a very nice picture.

“He’s very relaxed [in front of the camera], more so than a lot of leaders when they’re quite new.

“People react to it in very different ways. Theresa May was very uncomfortable, I don’t think she ever enjoyed it. She always used to stiffen up a bit when she was in front of us.

“But Keir Starmer seems to have taken to it quite well. He’s always relaxed and seems natural. That’s certainly a good sign for me [as a photographer]. It comes through the picture.”

Bumping into Boris Johnson (and a dog)

Boris Johnson takes a morning walk in St James' Park on 6 May. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Boris Johnson takes an early morning walk in St James's Park on 6 May. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

On 6 May, five weeks after Boris Johnson nearly died from COVID-19, Rousseau captured the PM going for an early morning stroll in St James’s Park as he attempted to rebuild his fitness.

“We got wind he was going for very early morning walks at St James’s Park [which is next to Downing Street]. I was dispatched down there and sure enough, he appeared in the park.”

Johnson, accompanied by plain clothes police officers walking 10m behind, “was pretty relaxed about us being there”.

“I just like the picture because there was a dog in the park and it wandered into the frame. It just gives it something else. You see the dog first and then think: ‘Hang on, that’s the prime minister in the background.’

“It tells the story of his recovery from serious illness.”

Watch: 2020: The year of the pandemic