In the aftermath of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and a kosher supermarket in Paris, the coming together of world leaders at the unity march in the French capital constituted a remarkable event in world history.
Rarely before have so many heads of state been at the same place at the same time for an event other than a meeting at the UN or for the G7/8 and G20 summits. Photographs of the world leaders standing literally and figuratively shoulder-to-shoulder with Françoise Hollande attempt to emphasize a sense of solidarity with the French people. Behind this group of powerful leaders, or so the viewer assumes, were millions of people marching in remembrance of the victims and to honor the tripartite motto that underpins the French Republic.
On that day photography played a crucial function in not just documenting the march and the almost unique coming together of world leaders, but also by creating a visual rhetoric for freedom of speech and against terrorism. The photograph of world leaders is meant to suggest that they stand up against terrorism and that they are willing to defend the values of a democracy. In that sense the photograph of world leaders is in itself a ‘document’ for democratic values – a document signed by Françoise Hollande positioned in the centre of the image and counter-signed by the heads of state and dignitaries standing behind and next to him.
The symbolic importance of this photograph could be measured as soon it was shared online and in the media. In particular, the absence of a representative from the United States (other than the ambassador to France) was interpreted as a ‘snub’ by the global media. Lest not forget that France is the oldest ally of the United States. In the following days The White House effectively admitted that it was caught off guard for not sending a higher ranked person if not President Obama himself. Not even the US Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Paris at the time, attended the march.
Though, is this furore based on the fact that Obama should have been at the march, or is it, more accurately, a question of whether he should have been at a photo opportunity? The latter should not be conflated with the former even if both are directly related to each other. The furore surrounding America’s ‘snub’ alludes to the power of photography in this type of context: that it provides a form of irrefutable evidence for non-attendance. One must wonder whether the same questions would have emerged if the world leaders were not photographed at all – if they just quietly and discreetly participated in the march. In the absence of a group photograph would anyone have really noticed Eric Holder missing?
Another aspect that attracted scrutiny was the impression provided by the photograph that heads of state were leading the march. This impression is created by the vantage point of the camera at the same height of the people depicted in the image. In that sense the photograph alludes to the notion of égalité as the viewer assumes that the world leaders and the people were marching together – as equals. Yet as TV footage of the gathering indicates, nothing could be further from the truth: world leaders were standing in a side street that was cordoned off from the main march. Quite clearly they are not equals, and they are not marching together with the people of France that day.
Further scrutiny at the world leaders who did attend the photo opportunity also raises question about what exactly the common cause is that they stand for. Daniel Wickham, a politics student at the London School of Economics, tweeted about the hypocrisy of a wide range of world leaders attending a march that is presumably fighting for the freedom of speech. Wickham highlighted the attendance of the prime minister of Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world, or the foreign minister of Bahrain, which has the second highest per capita rate of imprisoning journalists. Wickham’s series of tweets ends with pointing out the moral and ethical contradiction provided by the attendance of the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia – a country where the human rights activist and blogger Raif Badawi is periodically flogged in public while serving a ten-year prison sentence.
The more the photograph of the world leaders gathering in Paris is analyzed the more it reveals itself as a deeply conflicted sign. The visual rhetoric it exercises has less to do with a stance for freedom of speech than it does with the PR machinations of individuals attending a photo opportunity. And what about that tripartite motto of the French Revolution that was so beautifully displayed by the masses that day? Of those heads of state attending the photo opportunity, how many of them lead deeply autocratic regimes where civil liberties are routinely ignored? How many of them lead nations where equality – whether it is with regards to gender, religion or caste – is actually considered illegal? How many of them lead nations that are involved in territorial disputes or even war with neighbors in, what is supposed to be, a brotherhood of nations? For that brief moment, while walking on a cordoned off street in Paris, world leaders where united, whereas business as usual will resume shortly.