December 4, 2004



This morning, I found myself on page A3 of the NYTimes, looking at a picture of a guy looking at three pictures, with one of them appearing to look back at him.

The image accompanied an article speculating on the fate of Kofi Annan. The shot shows a visitor to the U.N. in front of the portraits of (left to right) past U.N. heads Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as well as Annan. Then, there’s just a big area of blank wall (which only has a shadow on it because I happened to fold the paper earlier).

To appreciate the picture, you need a little bit of backstory:

Basically, Senate conservatives are calling for Annan’s resignation by virtue of the fact the U.N.’s “Oil for Food” scandal occurred on his watch. The calls come after reports this week that Annan’s son was involved in the profiteering. My liberal brethren tag the move as an effort by conservatives to dump Annan in order to lower the current visibility and leverage of the U.N., and exact revenge for Annan’s resistance to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The left also identifies the pressure as an attempt by right wingers, emboldened by the recent Bush victory, to undermine and circumvent the formal investigation into the scandal currently being conducted by Paul Volker.

If I was Annan and my prospects for tenure at the U.N. were summed up by this one image, I guess I would be a little uneasy. If you had to come up with a one line interpretation, you could say that old Kofi had “come to the end of his rope.” You could also say the mostly empty right quarter of the picture is there to indicate exactly where the portrait of Annan’s replacement is expected to go.

I think the composition of the left side is interesting also. If you consider the position of the cordon and the visitor, besides splitting the picture in half, they form a boundary which includes Cuellar and Ghali — making Annan the “odd man out.” Or, you could read how the metal stanchion (to the right of the visitor) lines up with Annan’s portrait. In that case, you could say that Annan’s position is basically “half in” and “half out” — but more “out” than he is “in.”

Finally, the room orientation could also been seen as suggestive. The way the picture was shot, the floor is not exactly horizontal. Instead, the image portrays the wall as having a downward slant to the right. Besides what that portends about his relation to his predecessors, I guess you could say Kofi’s position has been slipping.

(photo: Diane Bondareff for The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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