For the first time in many years, photographs hang on the walls of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Organized in partnership with Diplomatic Courier, “21st Century Diplomacy: Ballet, Ballots, and Bullets” opened on May 29, 2014 to challenge contemporary perceptions of statecraft. Buzzing with over 100 dignitaries and guests, the exhibition opening allowed members a sneak peak at moments of daily life in unstable regions, where moments of profound horror are contrasted with the persistence of joy sustained by the human spirit. The Diplomacy of Photography Guests who visit the exhibition will be able to reflect upon how camera photography, as an art, has been celebrated and criticized for almost 200 years. Though photography derives inspiration from the portraits and still life paintings, the printed image captures a split second in a person’s history. And in this nanosecond, does the person stop to pose? Is the photographer, during composition, altering the narrative by choosing a particular frame? And can, or should, photography dare compete for attention alongside Michelangelo? After all, the very word means 'light' and 'drawing'. Photography is a natural conspirator for diplomacy. With the lens, photography communicates, represents, and focuses attention on an issue. Like diplomacy, photography is power. This exhibit and the education it brings is power. Ballet, Ballots, and Bullets The subsections in this exhibition are defined by three universal concepts that impact ways of life within the modern landscape, and further organized according to region. Broadly speaking, “Ballet” is used to represent culture and cultural diplomacy. This category includes images that portray performing arts, adaptation, and subsistence. Dancers are ambassadors, sharing national images with the world, challenging stereotypes, and bridging divides. From the World Championship of Pole Dancing to the scantily clad San Martin Ballet Company and the classical Eifman Ballet Company of St. Petersburg Russia, these dancers share their bodies and art form. Elsewhere wars rage and refugees abound, dancing slips are hung up in favor of rented wedding dresses in the UNHCR Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan. Instead of teaching their daughters to plié, women in Senegal and Togo visit family planning centers. Though anecdotal, many viewers remarked that Katy Doyle’s image of a Senegalese woman smiling at her baby while waiting to be seen at one of these clinics was their favorite. In all these photographs, culture allows a nation and its people to share, develop, and foster mutual understanding of the human condition. "Ballots" refer to politics, bureaucracy, and soft diplomacy. Negotiations and the art of diplomacy are tools to stave off war and reach political understandings. Whether behind closed doors or on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly, diplomacy is communication. In this exhibit, ballots are a symbol for both peaceful and contrived elections around the world, in addition to political satire. Ballots encompass how people see their human rights and the freedom they may or may not have to demand an attentive government. As part of "Ballots", a protester taunts Mexican police officers while they guard the Juárez hotel where Mexican President Felipe Calderon is discussing his social projects in 2010. In another image, the ballot boxes in Kazakhstan are protected for the 2004 legislative election. The art of satire comes through in a series of Carnival photographs aimed at former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Ballots, the ability to critique, can change diplomacy with the push of a button or swoop of the pen. Perhaps the most fundamental form of hard diplomacy is the bullet, or war. Though many images depict refugees and victims of international conflicts, “Bullets” also includes the themes of ecology and self-preservation such as climate change and vaccines. In one image, a child greets U.S. Marines as they advance into Baghdad in 2003. Five years later, a different Iraqi is a prisoner of war and hooded. A group of Code Pink activists hold a candlelight vigil for Syria outside the Capitol and protesters march in a Bahraini funeral procession. A Mexican federal police officer stand guard over a crime scene following a violent shootout that took place between cartel members and police in Juárez. Bullets are also the effects from military force. Numerous images depict life in a refugee camp, and the horror displaced people know. A malnourished child in a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan is cradled in the palm of your hand. Another Afghan child is fed at a UNICEF center. Amid disease concerns, children and adults alike are vaccinated in a Jordanian refugee camp. Bullets can be major events that have the potential to cause massive upheaval, like global warming in Tibet or safe water in Cambodia. Reflecting on Diplomacy In a world of instant text messages and everyone is a blogger, the tools of diplomacy are becoming increasingly diverse and complicated. Rather than rely on the Renaissance tactics of Machiavelli, this century requires a new playbook to navigate culture, elections, and war. This exhibition invites you to open your mind, like the aperture of the camera. *** Ballet Photographer: Akanksha Mehta. Pushkar, Rajasthan (2010). Pushtar Lake is a destination for pilgrims. This group of women travelled more than eight hours to cleanse their sins in the holy waters. This image symbolizes culture and religion on a basic level—people traveling and facing hardship on the basis of faith and belief. As a cultural and religious site, Pushtar Lake has suffered ecologically from unsustainable tourism. Photographer: Ben Barber. Pakistani family shows their rebuilding kit supplied by U.S. aid teams after an earthquake in 2005 killed 75,000 people. Kit included metal roofing panels, digging and carpentry tools, rolls of carpeting, insulation and plastic for flooring, metal wood stoves with smoke piping, and wire to reinforce foundation walls in future earthquakes. Photographer: Ben Barber (2009). Nepali health worker teaches an expectant mother how to prepare for healthy delivery. The U.S. project hires and trains local women to teach others on nutrition, alcohol avoidance, sanitation, saving money for transport to the hospital, use of emergency delivery kits, and how to protect newborns after delivery. This exhibition was curated by Visiting Instructor Kathryn H. Floyd in the Department of Government at the College of William & Mary. Join the conversation about this exhibition on social media, @diplocourier #fotodiplomacy. This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's July/August 2014 print edition.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.