The Man and the Icon

An analysis of the images that accompanied the campaign to free Gilad Shalit.

In every media campaign based on a particular figure, the first and most important step is to photograph the primary subject in a manner that serves the goal.

shalit - Emil Salman - October 28 2011
Emil Salman

This was not possible in the case of captured soldier Gilad Shalit. People organizing the campaign for his release had to resort to the family photo album, and their options were meager. Among the photos that the Shalit family released for publication, three were especially memorable:

In the photograph of Gilad standing in front of a tank (No. 1 ), he is in dress uniform, as in a military formation. Behind him is a tank; its gun appearing to be resting on his head. He is smiling broadly, wearing glasses and not looking directly at the camera. He is carrying his weapon. The picture says: "I am a happy soldier."

In the next photograph (No. 2 ), Gilad is shown from the waist up, wearing army coveralls and cap, and holding a rod used to clean the tank turret. The picture was taken by a fellow soldier who was looking down from the tank. Gilad has a forced smile on his face. He does not look happy.

shalit - Shalit family - October 28 2011
Shalit family

Eventually, the choice of the campaign organizers was another photograph, a close-up (No. 3 ) . In this picture, evidently taken at his home, Gilad is looking directly at the camera. He is not wearing glasses, so his eyes are clearly visible. His right hand is raised, partially obscuring his face.

This photo awakens free associations to many other portraits, starting perhaps with Rodin's sculpture of "The Thinker," with the man's hand supporting his head. That is how intelligent, determined people pose for a photograph (see: Steve Jobs' official portrait ). The desirable expression is there. A youth's face, earnest, intelligent, a bit surprised, unsmiling.

This photograph hints at a different kind of violence, like most snapshots. Gilad has been caught off guard. Without his glasses Gilad looks more vulnerable, but glasses attest to a defect (most people who wear glasses prefer to be photographed without them ). He also is not wearing glasses in the cardboard cutout, a life-sized, full body image of him (No. 4 ). And, after all, we know he is nearsighted.

shalit - Shalit family - October 28 2011
Shalit family

The portrait chosen to represent Gilad in the main (No. 3 ) does not depict a soldier. Without the military trappings, people who have little sympathy for the army have an easier time identifying with him. Don't forget: The campaign was global. But the photograph is still too complex to be easily "read." In the background is a partial figure of a woman in a green sweater, and a blurry painting. On the other side is a bluish rectangle that hints at another room. Above Gilad is a hazy brown stripe. He is wearing a sweatshirt, and on his sleeve is something that resembles a sergeant's insignia.

The photograph is not "clean," but it has been embedded in our memory because it appeared repeatedly in newspapers and on television. At that point, it could be turned into an icon, almost a graffiti stencil. The processed, posterized version is a two-dimensional logo of Gilad (No. 5 ), a few lines that send a clear message. Eyes gazing straight ahead, a hint of nose and lips, no more raised arm or military insignia, colors replaced with a two-toned image: the national colors, naturally, blue and white. Above his head is an Israeli flag.

This image is cheap and easy to replicate, from bumper sticker to gigantic poster. It is recognizable from a distance. The linear abstraction conveys solitude. The white background is empty, and the figure is in a void, connoting perhaps a state of sensory deprivation. The face is also white. Gilad Shalit has nearly faded away here; he's ethereal, detached. This is what is left of him. True, the similarity between the image and the captive soldier exists only in our imaginations. But had the figure not been based on a well-known photograph, it would not have served its purpose.

shalit - Shalit family - October 28 2011
Shalit family

In today's Internet era, a million surfers used Gilad Shalit's photo as their Facebook profile picture. In the original photo, taken without forethought but certainly by a loving hand, the pleasant-looking young man's wise eyes look straight at us, and it is impossible not to feel empathy.

Last week we needed confirmation that it truly was Gilad being returned, based on photographic evidence. We were not disappointed, and were even impressed by the degree to which the photo (No. 6 ) that was disseminated resembled him. Visually, at least, it is the same Gilad. I for one imagine that this picture will become an Israeli icon because of its intimacy - although for the moment Israelis prefer the one of Gilad saluting the prime minister.

shalit - Alon Ron - October 28 2011
Alon Ron