Thursday 27 June 2019

When a picture paints a thousand words. . .

On the face of it, it's a moment of levity amid the sobering meetings on the future of the euro. French President Nicolas Sarkozy playfully ruffles the back of Enda Kenny's hair. The Taoiseach is photographed sporting a schoolboy grin.

For all the world, it could be two old friends sharing a joke.

But Rowan Manahan, a Dublin-based body language expert and corporate speechwriter, sees it differently.

"It's essentially the dominant primate letting the subordinate primate know who's in charge.

"Sarkozy may well like Enda on a personal level, but it is a condescending gesture that says, 'be a good boy now, Irishman, and do what you're told'. I couldn't imagine the roles being reversed in that photo. It's almost as if Enda knows his place. It's no wonder that the Opposition got mileage out of it," he says.

Gerry Adams took particular interest in the snap, which was splashed on the front page of the Irish Independent -- and other newspapers -- on Tuesday. "It is inappropriate for a Taoiseach to act like an eejit when he meets the French president," he said.

His comments led to an angry exchange in the Dáil, with Kenny taunting Adams about being "buddy-buddy with some very shadowy creatures over the past 30 years".

But as the most seasoned figure in Irish politics (a member of the Dáil for 34 years), the Taoiseach is unlikely to have been surprised by the Sinn Féin man's jibe. Few are more aware of the power of the image than Enda Kenny.

"It's probably not a photo opportunity he will be too pleased with in retrospect," says political commentator and ex-Labour Party press advisor, Andrea Pappin. "And it's one that will be dug out time and again to mark his role as Taoiseach.

"You can almost see Enda recoiling from the touch. He's laughing, but he's also thinking 'personal space' and 'how is this going to look back home?'

"It's an image that would have caused no ructions whatsoever back in the boom years, but in an environment where we're all having to tighten the purse-strings, it's a very different story."

Manahan says today's political leaders have to be cognisant of how snapshots of them can be interpreted -- or misinterpreted. "Look at the photo of Mitt Romney that did the rounds a few weeks back," he says.

"He appeared to be getting a shoe-shine. There he was looking smug and important, and some guy was bending down to care for his shoes.

"It wasn't exactly the sort of image a 'man of the people' would want to convey and I can't believe his advisers didn't realise how damaging such a photo would seem."

The photo -- featuring the Republican hopeful seated on the tarmac near his private jet and with a cowering figure attending to his footwear -- caused outrage in the US.

By the time it was clarified that Romney was, in fact, having his shoes scanned by an airport security official, the damage had already been done.

"Look at that moment when Sarko (Sarkozy) deliberately snubbed the handshake of David Cameron," Pappin says. "It caused uproar in the UK and it spoke volumes about how relations between the two countries had been strained over the euro.

"In years to come, that will probably become a defining image for the difficulties Europe has faced over the past few years. Sarko knew exactly what he was doing and you can see the embarrassment written all over Cameron's face."

Pappin believes even the orchestrated photos of world leaders meeting can reveal much about the protagonists. "Something as simple as a handshake can be loaded with hidden meanings," she says. "A leader might want to be seen to be giving the handshake and not receiving it. It's effectively macho posturing.

"I remember seeing footage of Chirac and Berlusconi shaking hands and you could see Berlusconi desperately change his posture in order to be seen to be the dominant one, to give the handshake.

"It all might sound amusing, but for these leaders, the psychology of the handshake and the photo opportunity are deadly serious."

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