November 19, 2004

Icon Watch — Middle East Edition

Although the point wasn’t exactly lost on me before, the more I think about icons, the more I appreciate how much politics is a cult of personality.

My last post had to do with Yasser Arafat and how he came to be depicted as larger than life. In the post, my final comment dealt with Marwan Barghouti. Using an old photo of Arafat, I indicate how his holding up a poster of the the jailed Palestinian leader suggested that Barghouti (“enhanced” by his imprisonment) looks to have earned Arafat’s endorsement for the Palestinian presidency. …At the same time, I was also wondering about how one becomes an icon, and if that status can be conferred.

What’s that phrase: “Ask and you shall receive?”


After collecting this morning’s NY Times from the front lawn, there, on the front page, was a story about Barghouti (“Jailed in Israel, Palestinian Symbol Eyes Top Post”). Not only that, but it showed a (real live) image of his wife posed in front of a giant poster of Barghouti’s image. The background of the poster depicts a demonstration with multiple orange flags sporting the foreground image of Barghouti. So, can icon be conferred? I’m saying “yes”, and I’m offering today’s NYTimes as “Exhibit 1.” Just as the photo visually endorses Barghouti as (the new Palestinian) icon, so does the text (by designating him as “symbol” in the headline).

(Of course, if Arafat was a big icon, Barghouti is still a small one, or — in spite of this one day’s exposure — just an aspiring one. Still, in a debate whether Barghouti has become an icon, I guess his followers could say: I read it in the New York Times!)

The other thing worth pointing out about this photo is the cropping.

In the shots of Arafat in the previous post (and in most of the other news photos of him I’ve recently looked at), it’s obvious you are looking at posters. That’s not true at all with this shot. By representing an outsized image of Barghouti without any boundary to put the image in context, let alone to remind you it’s just a guy on a piece of paper (and where did they take that picture anyway, in jail?), and by also making him about five times bigger than his “miniature” wife (again, with no outside context)… well, that’s one big career boost.

(photo: James Hill/The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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