The Faces of Merkel
By Thomas Peter
The Bundestag in Berlin, session 188. The plenum below the grand glass dome of the Reichstag building is buzzing with the voices of lawmakers who are to vote today on the ratification of Europe’s permanent bailout mechanism.
News photographers pluck the occasional picture from among the crowd with a timid click of their cameras. But everyone is waiting for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A summit of EU leaders in Brussels has finished only hours earlier. A summit that Ms Merkel left as the defeated, after Spain and Italy cornered her into budging to their demand to use EU rescue fund money for the direct recapitalisation of banks, something that thus far had been a red rag for Germany.
How would Ms Merkel sell the outcome of the summit to the house? Curiosity is running high on the two tightly packed media balconies overlooking the floor. TV cameras and batteries of photographers’ super-tele lenses are trained at the spot where Angela Merkel will appear any minute.
Then she emerges from the back corridor, dressed in a brightly colored blazer, her gait determined, heading straight for the company of a party fellow. A cacophony of rattling camera shutters accompanies her every step. Their hysteric sound of high-tech metal slapping against metal flutters from the press balcony across the entire plenum and cannot escape the attention of the person down below who is being captured in this moment. But Angela Merkel is too much of a professional to allow her composure to slip.
She is quickly surrounded by financial experts of her coalition. Where there is space, photographers move their position to get a clear view.
Ever since the European sovereign-debt crisis has deteriorated into something that threatens the common currency and indeed the union itself, Germany as the European lynchpin economy has been at the center of most newspapers stories. And Angela Merkel, setting Germany’s agenda, has no choice but to lend her face to the visual side of the media coverage.
When Angela Merkel doesn’t like someone, she will show it. She becomes frosty. She is often frosty when she faces us, the eagle-eyed news photographers. To be fair, I can understand that she is somewhat weary of our ubiquity. At all of her public events we are there in the first row, shuffling for a good spot. And we are not there to give her flowers. We scrutinize her every movement and investigate the surface of her face for signs that reveal something meaningful in the light of the day’s installment of the EU story. A twist of the lips, a wave of the hand, a smile or just an empty stare – the tiniest detail can make the picture appear in the world’s newspapers the next morning.
Details are the key. This fact is not lost on Ms Merkel. So she gives us as little as possible unless she wants a certain picture to emerge. On a bad day, showing the open palm of her left hand alternating with showing the open palm of her right hand, can be all we get in the way of gestures. And of course, there is always the famous triangle hand gesture at the center of her body that is her home position and makes for the most boring picture.
No, Angela Merkel is not a natural talent in front of the camera. Her level-headed style in politics is reflected in the way she moves in public. She displays no emotional spikes, unless she watches Germany play soccer.
For news photographers working in Berlin, where during busy weeks photographing Angela Merkel can make up some 60 percent of all assignments, this means an exercise in the utmost in patience and inventiveness. Patience, because it can take half of her speech before she grants us a meager hand movement. Inventiveness, because after you photographed her yesterday in front of the blue wall at the Chancellery, you have to photograph her today in front of the blue wall at the Chancellery. But differently, because the story has moved on.
Yes, I admit, there are moments when I am as tired of seeing her as she must be tired of seeing us. But we are stuck with each other, for in today’s world no political event can go without a picture. For a good reason: there are certain notions of a story that are best disclosed by a news photograph. Despite the painstaking choreography of, say, a state visit, there are always moments when traces of the energy that exists between the protagonists peek through the cracks of the protocol. A good picture will record and release this energy upon publication.
The secret of “Merkelography” is photographing through those cracks. And somewhere in the vast stream of pictures of Angela Merkel and her fellow European leaders that we produce every day there is a pattern, a certain mood, perhaps only a handful of photographs that will determine the image of our day and age in the history books of the future. Whether this image will be positive or negative, depends on the actions taken by those politicians today.
Photography by Fabrizio Bensch, Ina Fassbender, Thomas Peter, Kai Pfaffenbach and Tobias Schwarz