What’s behind the smile?

Yesterday, Sunday 27 April 2014, two popes made history together, being canonised together. A lot has been written about Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, and so this post focuses on Pope Francis, and specifically about a photo he took in August last year.

Selfie Pope Francis

Actually, here is a picture of the picture being taken.

Picture of Pope Francis selfie

Let me start by re-stating that I feel that every photo has “multi-dimensional space”, and that photos freeze a moment in time, but not what was happening. What was happening is a whole different thing, very different for every person in that moment, and also possibly many different things for each of them. All of this allows for perspectives which may be disentangled by you and me, the picture’s viewers.

The word selfie was Oxford dictionary’s word of the year in 2013, defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself” and so, strictly speaking the picture of the pope is not a selfie. Because he did not take it. But maybe it qualifies because he actively participated in it (posed for it). Has Pope Francis too been actively pursuing the development of his personality cult?

Do popes need, or should they develop one? A personality cult, that is? Many people still wonder whether, behind that lovely smile of Pope Francis, we will discover a conservative or a progressive leader. What happened yesterday can be a message from the pope, in as much as that selfie, which was published by the Vatican’s l’Osservatore Romano. In fact one might tend to question, as Time did: Public Service or Propaganda? No harm, if by building Pope Francis’s persona, the church can reinforce its own voice.

I feel that the church is very aware that, like every modern government, it needs to engage people. The church knows that its citizens are not only its followers but also the rest of the world. It is reassuring to note Pope Francis’s interest in interfaith dialogue for example – diluting divisions. Would the energy otherwise spent arguing differences, not be better committed to promoting the co-development of the twenty-first century.


Update: Upon feedback from readers, the original final argument regarding the environment will be developed further in a future post.


Momentous victory for pardon

Pardon is a virtue, maybe only second to patience. And many times pardon requires patience. So was it for Balal, whose pardon arrived just a moment before the chair on which he was standing already, with a noose around his neck, would be swung from under his feet. At this very last minute the victim’s mum slapped him, and then forgave him, thus saving his life. Thankfully the slap did not itself swing Balal off that chair. For the picture below says it all.

Death by hanging was his punishment for having killed the woman’s son in a fight, when both were just 17 years of age.


Source: Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA). All photos of the moment of the interrupted execution area available here.

Yesterday’s post about Stanfield’s momentous photo of just after the heart transplant surgery, was to say that photos have a story. This set of photos of Balal’s interrupted execution also have a story – many stories in fact. The story of Balal’s lucky strike for example, the one of the sadness of that victim’s mother, the one of public execution in general and of Iran where it is still practiced, and many others.

What social media has enabled in the last ten years of Facebook, is in fact not just a social network, but many stories which would otherwise have been left untold. Facebook and other social platforms are a fountain of that imagination that fires to pull out a story for a picture you see for the first time. As the details and the motivation are unknown, you make them up.

Photos must tell a story

Poland broke away from the communist block in 1989. Two years before that, Stanfield – a National Geographic photographer, took a very important picture of Zbigniew Religa. Stanfield commented: “In this day and age you need more than a pretty photograph, you need information.”

National Geographic long realised that a pretty photograph is not enough. They got to the crux of the saying that a picture is a thousand words – it’s not how many words that matters, but the substance. And the substance is captured by the right moment: “I never let him out of my sight, never turned my back on him,” Stanfield said. “This was the payoff.”

Dr. Zbigniew Religa

The anxious eyes of Religa monitor an instrument with data about the patient next to him. The patient has just gone a heart transplant. Outdated equipment drapes the patient. A staff member who has assisted Religa through the 24 hour marathon, is sprawled in the corner, gaining some rest. “Each of these elements,” says Stanfield, “gives dimension and drama to the photograph, while helping tell a story.” Each of these elements, Roland Barthes would say, contribute to the multi-dimensional space of the story, left to be disentangled only by the person viewing the photo. Stanfield’s perspective does not die (as in ‘Death of the Author’) after the photo is published, but it becomes one of the interpretations. Maybe, a story of the sadness of the desolate state of that operating theatre.

Everything about photos has changed since 1987. Good story-telling photos are everywhere now, and if you’re taking them, iStockphoto.com is helping you sell them. And even if that doesn’t make every person who buys an SLR a Stanfield, Facebook is open for anybody who wants to tell a story. Instagram’s homepage boasts the slogan “Capture and Share the World’s Moments”, pretty ambitious for a website, but then that’s why Facebook acquired it for a billion dollars!