The truth behind the smiles

The truth behind the smiles

A new photo exhibition at the Manezh focuses on the body language of politicians and what it reveals.

Published: October 19, 2011 (Issue # 1679)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel (l) and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Photos of politicians are usually plastered all over newspapers, but it is usually professional photographs that reflect them most accurately. Only a photographer is capable of capturing the individual as a whole: Their characteristic body movements, gestures and facial expressions. Yet most snapshots rarely make it through the official selection. Now, pictures revealing more about the nature of political leaders through their body language — the subconscious manifestation of human nature — are on display for the first time at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall.

The exhibition features approximately 50 photos, most of which were taken by Kremlin pool photojournalists Alexander Astafiev and Anatoly Zhdanov. The project also features the work of two photographers from St. Petersburg: The St. Petersburg Times photographer Alexander Belenky, and Sergei Grachev, who also previously worked as a staff photographer at The St. Petersburg Times.

There are many who believe in the ability of photographers to see political leaders through a different lens, and now visitors without this unique gift will be able to view these familiar public figures in a different light that focuses on their body language and expressions not so easily caught by the amateur photographer.

Astafiev began covering political events involving Russian leaders about seven years ago. Since that time, foreign politicians have also been the focus of his lens.

“I take photos of every political event connected with our president,” said Astafiev. “Of course I try to publish every interesting picture because very soon they become a thing of the past and fall into oblivion.”

According to body language expert Allan Pease, non-verbal signals are five times more informative than verbal ones. Gestures and facial expressions are more trustworthy than words. Even an experienced liar can only imitate insincere gestures for a short period, because the body involuntarily gives out signals contradictory to its conscious actions.

“Some of the photos at the exhibition had never before been published and can be considered as informal,” said exhibition organizer Olga Sviridenko.

The photos displayed as part of the “next frames” part of the exhibition combine both documentary reporting and creative freedom. In these shots, photojournalists show a person in their everyday environment and demonstrate the ability of modern photography to take away these distractions, unveiling their personal image.

All politicians understand the importance of body language, and they try to use it to their advantage as best they can, making themselves more dramatic, charming and attractive. The right gestures made former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt one of the most confident leaders in history, just as a mess of the wrong ones made Richard Nixon a joke.

Most psychologists agree that President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both have very expressive gestures. During one press conference, Allan Pease observed that Russian leaders, unlike American politicians, are very aware of how they communicate non-verbally.


Medvedev is featured prominently in the photo exhibition at the Manezh.

Since facial expressions and body language cannot be heard, it is necessary to watch closely in order to detect subtle movements or a brief look. For example, only the close analysis of a video in which Medvedev receives a Soviet propaganda poster at Stanford reveals the true feelings of the president. He reads the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” and only a freeze-frame captures the expression of disgust on his face. Such controversial images are rarely shown by the press or at most exhibitions. However, the “Political Body Language” exhibition at the Manezh allows all visitors to see a small part of the “real Medvedev.”

Putin’s telltale body language includes a habit of tilting his head and staring sullenly at what is really attracting his attention. Due to this peculiarity, it is easy to tell which theme of summit talks really interests the prime minister. A sign of favor to his interlocutor is a special handshake, when he places his free hand on the shoulder of the person whom he is greeting. Putin likes to be shown as being in control and dominant, analysts say, and during handshakes, the prime minister always gets the upper hand by turning the back of his hand — not that of his interlocutor — toward the camera.

Sometimes, body language is the only way in which politicians can communicate with the people they meet through their work. One of the exhibits shows former St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko and German Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher using a primitive form of sign language (see page 13).

“Schumacher visited the city in 2008 for the Commission for Global Road Safety,” said Belenky, who captured the moment.

“It was a very pompous, formal occasion, but when they sat next to each other, it seemed that they couldn’t find a common language, and resorted to sign language. It struck me as amusing, and I took a picture of it.”

According to Astafiev, there is always an element of chance in photography: It is a question of being in the right place at the right time.

“The process of photographing politicians is very unpredictable. Working with ordinary people, you can organize some type of stage management, whereas taking photos of politicians can be compared to winning a lottery,” said Astafiev. “A photographer should always predict what’s going to happen, because they can’t interfere with the process.”

Whether it be a photo of Medvedev’s shrewd smile or former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s frown, the images look certain to raise lot of questions about what we really know about these people, and what they simply lead us to believe.

“Political Body Language” runs from Oct. 20 to 23 at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, 1 Isaakievskaya Ploshchad. Tel. 314 8859. M. Sadovaya/Sennaya Ploshchad.

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