March 14, 2014

On Ukraine, that Viral Kerry-Lavrov Photo and More Complex Feelings

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I know the Internet is buzzing this morning with the photo of John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in London. Frankly though, these kinds of photos are highly unreliable for assessing just about anything. It’s one millisecond in time, they could be responding to anything, and you could find another half-dozen photos from the same press availability (1, 2, 3) that show them interacting in a way that is livelier and evidences a more ambiguous, or even an opposite feeling or mood.

That’s not to say we’re not seeing the two men reveal their true feelings about the US – Soviet schism surrounding the Russian’s imminent digestion of Crimea and the Ukraine. Ultimately though, and here’s the point: what this AFP photo largely does, and does effectively enough to go viral, is reflect and illustrate the media and the public’s perception that things are grim.

Now, if we’re looking for a more substantive emotional and political reading on the Ukraine crisis, I’m much more intrigued by the image of Obama’s meeting with the (perhaps, very) interim and Western-facing Ukrainian Prime Minister published on Wednesday as the White House “photo of the day.” I can say that because, out of the selection Pete Souza must have taken, something of the perspective/mood/outlook of the White House (even if the aim is to spin it or shine it) is inevitably reflected in the one photo the Press Office chose to broadcast about such a dire situation.

Given how very close the two men appear from this angle – so symbolically sandwiched between the freedom and independence-loving trifecta of Washington, Lady Liberty and (the bust of) Martin Luther King – you would otherwise imagine from the completely disparate body language that Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the President were not even in the same picture. So what is the administration communicating here?

From my perspective, I think this is a bold and honest photo for the White House to publish. Primarily, the position of Mr. Yatsenyuk’s body presents us with a scene of extraordinary availability and almost prone dependence on the President — a vulnerability and seeking/yearning we naturally extrapolate to his country. At the same time, the photo plays a secondary note– brilliantly paired, and created through that angle again, that the two men are looking past each other. I imagine the White House is confiding there is no way we can take this head on — that the best we can offer the Ukranians is rhetoric, our ideas and our moral support … but that it isn’t lost on us whatsoever how vulnerable the Ukranians are feeling and how powerfully (and, in the mix, dejectedly) they look to us.

Personally, I find this an extraordinarily honest and heartfelt admission from the White House — one of the strongest I’ve have seen.

(photo: Pete Souza/White House. caption: President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine at the conclusion of their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, March 12, 2014.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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