What a Photo Reveals

Dag Hammarskjöld and Dialogue: What can this one photo tell us about the former Secretary-General? Find out in this blog entry from Henning Melber.

At times, a photo can tell more than words. Body language is as strong an expression as other forms of articulation. We react by intuition to non-verbal signals and respond often in body language too. What then can this photo tell us about Dag Hammarskjöld?

During his tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nations between 1953 and 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld was dubbed as ‘more General than Secretary’ due to his hands on leadership style. This could suggest that his management and leadership approach was based on authority, executing command without too much consultation and openness. The opposite was true. His authority was to a large extent vested in his ability to listen and to consider other perspectives and views.

A closed mind is a weakness

His mediation successes were largely also the result of his ability to seek inclusiveness of all parties in a conflict, respecting and trying to understand their diverse interests. “The other’s ‘face’ is more important than your own”, he entered in his posthumously published notebook Markings towards the end of 1955. “You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.” And he ended the entry with the warning: “a closed mind is a weakness, and he who approaches persons or painting or poetry without the useful ambition to learn a new language and to gain access to someone else’s perspective of life, let him beware.”

Being a Secretary-General on official visits, Dag Hammarskjöld, like most other diplomats and statesmen, was mostly pictured in the execution of duties in very formal settings, relating to counterparts in similar formal functions and postures. The photos are as a result rather stereotype with photos picturing individuals on official missions. But there is at least one notable exception.

On equal footing

In 1956, Hammarskjöld undertook a six-week round-the-world tour to gather first hand impressions in 15 UN Member States, including Israel. On 1 May he stopped at a village for new immigrants mainly from Yemen in the Jerusalem hills, where he visited a kindergarten class at the school of Givath-Jearim. A photo shows him at this encounter with some of the children. It illustrates what can be understood as being ‘on equal footing’: Hammarskjöld crouched down and thereby put himself physically on the same level of the children. He seems relaxed and smiles –few photos, by the way, show him in such rather easy-going posture and facial expression when on official duty.

High-ranking office bearers in politics and other celebrities tend to seek occasions when they can be pictured showing fondness of children or taking care of weak and vulnerable fellow human beings. But rarely do they create ‘equal footing’ of such kind. The normal set up is that children are uplifted and on the arms of the benefactors, or that they bend down. But eye to eye contact by elevating the other to the same level, not by taking them up (a gesture of dominance) but by going down to their height, is a rather unusual physical response to a situation of inequality. It pays respect to the others’ context and setting and enters – at least for a moment physically – their experienced location and worldview. Without reading too much into it, this is a perfect example of a dialogue, which allows ‘the other’ to be recognised as an equal.

Next time you see a photo of a politician or statesmen maybe take another look. Is there something we can learn from their body language? Could it tell us something about their leadership approach, their values? Are they in the league of the Secretary-General and gaining a brief moment of access to someone else’s perspective of life?

Henning Melber By Henning Melber

Henning Melber is Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus. He has served as Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University, was Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek, and Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. Henning is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/University of London. He directed the Foundation from 2006 to 2012. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and a Habilitation in Development Studies. In 2017 he was elected President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).