February 25, 2014

Netanyahu Gives Merkel Hitler's Mustache. Or: How Photos So Easily and Often Remind Us of Other Things

It’s easy to get all theoretical about this marvelous object known as the photograph. Simply put though, one of its wonders has to do with its tendency to call up related pictures from that encyclopedic storehouse known as the brain. In the case of today’s Merkel/Netanyahu photo by Yoav Lemmer, people couldn’t help tweeting (and cleverly riffing with vivid word play) because of the drop dead A to B relationship.

Yes, sometimes the connection between one visual and another is so blatant, it commandeers our mental hard drive in connecting the dots. The pieces in play around that “mustache” are just too rich here – given the behavior of a shadow in combination with the presence of the Israeli Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and the infamy of that lip ornament. Of course, what raises the photo to “epic” is everything ironic that gets baked in also:  the fact Bibi is projecting a Hitler vibe on a comparatively low alpha German chancellor, and a female one to boot. The fact Merkel’s gaze and profile is in the ballpark too. And the fact that Bibi, being his usual imposing self with that digit, is continuously evoking the Holocaust … and stands for nothing if not the triumph of the will.

Because photos are often as significant for what they remind us of as for what they contain, Netanyahu turning Merkel into Hitler reminded me of a photo link that pulsed through my synapses just last night. How idiosyncratic vs. culturally relevant it is, you’ll have to let me know.

In this case, the photo circulated by joint American-Mexican narco security about the major, major arrest of major, major Mexican drug kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán Loera on Friday, instantly reminded me of another photo, a hugely infamous one.

Certainly, its rare to encounter as single, clear and near-ubiquitous a reference as the Merkel Hitler photo did — at least, not so accidentally. The rest of the time, photos — like prisms — dole out a spray of associations, weaker or stronger depending on what’s in your “encyclopedia” as compared to mine. One part of The Bag’s mission, in fact, is to look at those connections trying to discern their cultural implications. Because this realm is so suggestive, however, the best we can do is draw some lines, and and then compare notes.

Of course, any similarity between the detention of “El Chapo” and that of alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Muhammed, might be as incidental as how one presents to the camera after being rousted out of bed by a SWAT team.  To me, though, the first thing the drug lord picture did was call up the other.  The association to “terrorist” might not be as culturally sure as that shadow said “mustache,” and then the “mustache” said “Hitler,” but it hit me just as fast.

(update: there is a very slightly different version of the Merkel image by Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Sellem which you can see here. This post originally attributed the photo to Sellem.)

(photo 1: Yoav Lemmer for/AFP/Getty Images. photo 2: LATimes.com screenshot via handout. photo 3: EPA)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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