How many people do we see in this photograph? Two? Three? Or maybe four? On August 16, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere came to Ramallah for an official visit with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ). In this profound, multidimensional photograph taken by Fadi Arouri of AP, the two are seen just before the start of their talk. The meeting took place shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited Abu Mazen to begin direct talks with Netanyahu in Washington, and here in his office he looks relaxed, like a person in his own home - his legs are open, not crossed, his body fills his chair - but at the same time he also looks a little impatient.
The photograph is divided into two parts, as if inviting one to fold it down the middle. On the right is Abu Mazen. On the left is Gahr Stoere. In the center, on the table, there is a vase with a modest floral arrangement, two symbolic, paper-thin miniature flags, an ashtray and a multiline telephone. Above the head of the Norwegian minister hangs the official portrait of Yasser Arafat. Abbas sits beneath his own portrait.
Roland Barthes maintained that every photograph contains a punctum, a certain element that grabs the eye, that pops out of the image, that touches the viewer in a unique way. Where is the punctum of this photograph? The contrast between the downturned mouth of the real Abu Mazen (the one captured in Arouri's photograph ) and the level expression on the face of the ideal Abu Mazen (the one immortalized with a direct, optimistic and accessible smile in his official portrait ) could be the punctum. It really should be the punctum. But not only can this photograph be folded in half lengthwise, it can also be folded along the diagonal into two triangles. Because the real punctum of this photograph is not the relationship between the two Abu Mazens, but rather between the Abu Mazen sitting in the armchair, wearing a tolerant, slightly despairing, natural and readable expression, and the portrait of Yasser Arafat, hanging at left, above the head of the Norwegian foreign minister.
This official shot of Arafat, which hangs in every Palestinian home, is a most complex and intriguing portrait. It is not your classic official photograph, but something unique: a casual official photograph. Arafat is seen laughing, enjoying himself even, and his head and gaze are turned to the side, as if this were a picture from someone's personal photo album that was cut out and enlarged, never mind the technical limitations, as a memorial picture. A photograph that both obscures and fulfills its purpose of serving the cult of personality. As if to say: This leader is so deeply ensconced in your consciousness that it isn't even necessary for him to gaze directly back at you from the photograph.
So when one looks at the face of the Abu Mazen sitting in the chair, the eye wanders not to his portrait above, but rather to the portrait of the man whom he succeeded. And it's clear to the observer that Abu Mazen will never be etched in the consciousness with such enduring mystery. That he will not be glorified with a seemingly casual photograph. Abu Mazen smiles like an awkward bridegroom when being photographed for the nation, and makes a face when he's uncomfortable. He is someone a viewer can understand. Someone with an intelligible message. Someone you can talk to.
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