Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:16 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:16 | SYDNEY

The Madeleine: The Diana Directive on the utility and force of photographs


Graeme Dobell

30 January 2012 11:36

Time for the final stage of our annual Madeleine Award for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs. The contest involves all those acts that define relations between states and statespersons — the words and deeds and even props such as umbrellas and shoes.

The judges this year paid heed to the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs. Tony Blair quotes the Princess of Wales: 'As Diana used to say, the picture is what counts.' Many a minder or advance person has made or sunk a career on that simple bit of advice – the picture defines the story (politicians in trouble: avoid EXIT signs and stand in front of the flag). Blair's biography recounts Diana's understanding, both emotional and analytical, of the demands of the media age: 

I had a conversation with her once about the utility and force of photographs and how they could be best used, which showed a mind that was not only intuitive but also had a really good process of reasoning. She had the thing totally worked out. Occasionally she would phone and say such-and-such a picture was rubbish or what could be done better, and though not, as I say, at all party political, she had a complete sense of what we were trying to achieve and why. I always used to say to Alastair [Blair's PR supremo]: if she were ever in politics, even Clinton would have to watch out.

Apply the Diana rule to these two pictures (left), courtesy of The Atlantic. Damien Ma commented on the two pix, 'the Chinese blogosphere has juxtaposed yet another photo of some unknown Chinese official against Obama shaking hands with supporters in the rain...Obama doesn't even have to try to project soft power.'

The message has got across the Taiwan Straits. After being re-elected this month, President Ma Ying-jeou stood out in the rain to give his victory speech. So confident was Ma in the democratic conferral of the Mandate of Heaven, he stood unprotected beneath the heavens. No underling-held-umbrellas for him.

Reporting on the impact Ma's damp speech had in China, the NY Times recorded a joke bouncing around Chinese email accounts: A Taiwanese man brags to his Chinese friend that he will go to the polls in the morning and know the results that evening. 'You guys are too backward,' the Chinese friend responds. 'If we had to vote tomorrow morning, we would already know who is elected by tonight.'

On the umbrella front, Obama earns points with the Chinese even when he does have rain protection, just by carrying the brolly himself rather than having a flunky do the job. When the US President arrived in Shanghai in 2009, a China Daily columnist thought Obama made 'an immediate and positive impression' even as he stepped from the plane:  'It was all because Obama held his own umbrella. It was an iconic image, beating all the rhetoric...Simply put, few in the country he landed in would expect a president — any president of any organization — to hold an umbrella. That is the job of underlings.’ 

Still on the Diana Directive, consider the point China's leaders make by flying on an America-made Boeing. When Hu Jintao arrived in the US on a Jumbo, The Atlantic concluded that 'the aircraft is the message'.  

The Madeleine judges – ever alert to the use of symbols and props – have an eye for shoe throwing, as we recounted last year. We salute The Economist's effort at rendering the Arab Spring in graphic form by creating The Shoe-Thrower's Index, which aims to predict where the scent of jasmine may spread next.

From shoe-throwing we segue to date-shifting. Step forward Samoa for its action on the last day of 2011 in hopping westwards over the international date line, the better to align itself with Australia and New Zealand. Samoa has transformed its marketing pitch — no longer the last place on earth to see the sun set, now the first to see the sun rise. And those heading to Apia can enjoy themselves on both sides of the date line:

By taking an hour-long flight to the US territory of American Samoa, which will remain on the eastern side of the new and adjusted date line, visitors will be able to enjoy the unique experience of celebrating birthdays and anniversaries twice.

Talk about global positioning. 

All these are worthy Madeleine finalists. But one international performance in the last year has proven star power for its length, cast, cost and sheer drawn-out drama. The envelope is to hand. Silence, please. The winner is...to be announced tomorrow!