The G8 Summit too place in Northern Ireland in mid-June, its stated purpose being to create “the right environment for frank and open discussions to promote growth and address global and economic problems.” It is not clear how successful all of that was, but the above photograph which circulated at the time certainly puts it all into context, particularly given President Obama’s apparent decision not to meet with Russian’s Prime Minister Putin when he attends the G-20 summit in September. Sitting against a false background and a pair of US and Russian flags, and presumably waiting for the appropriate moment to interact for the cameras, two of the world’s premiere leaders appear not to have anything to say to one another. So much for creating an environment for “frank and open discussions.”
The above photograph circulated on the main slideshows in June. I did not pay much attention to it until this past week when the following photograph began to circulate:
This was not the President’s first visit to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, having joined the late night celebrity on five previous occasions, three times while in his current office. However much we might want to challenge the propriety of the leader of the free world promoting his policies on late night television, it is clear that the gravitas we might like to affiliate with being President is a thing of the past. That said, I was struck by the similarities and differences between the two photographs.
Each operates in a faux setting that is both neutral and yet mildly inviting, offering the opportunity of camaraderie while maintaining a patina of professional difference. It is interesting, in this context, that in the first photograph neither the President nor the Prime Minister is wearing a tie, signaling a an informal association between the two men – albeit a relationship that is challenged by their posture and the dour looks on their faces. In the second photograph both men wear ties, signaling a more formal relationship, while their posture and facial expressions suggest an easy friendship – albeit one that seems a bit too easy, as if it is feigned. In each instance the contrast between dress and demeanor is all too pronounced to be random.
Of course both President Obama and Prime Minister Putin carry the burden of incredibly complex decision decisions on their shoulders, and so it is not at all unlikely that the first photograph captures them in a down moment as they contemplate the problems that separate and connect them—or that they are simply exhausted by the demands of their offices and the agenda of the G8 Summit. And by the same token, it is altogether unlikely that President Obama and Jay Leno are good friends who interact with one another anywhere but in this altogether theatrical environment. The significance of putting the two photographs next to one another is in the ways in which they remind us not only how much world leadership is represented and measured by the conventions of celebrity—and that should certainly trouble us— but more, world leaders are forced into a performative role even when it is not altogether clear that the camera’s are rolling.
Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo