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Magnum Photographers
March 12, 2013
by Richard Kalvar
As I came into the Congress Center in Davos one day, I saw a minor commotion. Naturally I elbowed my way in. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was speaking with a colleague and an admirer, and being filmed by a video crew. I subsequently learned that she was about to publish a book called “Lean In”, and the filming (unusual at Davos) was presumably done for its promotion. I took the first picture shown above.

When things had calmed down a bit and the microphone had been removed, I followed her around for a while. She’s obviously an intelligent and energetic person, and clearly very charming. If you have doubts about that, just look at the smiles on the faces of the high-powered men in the next three pictures. These images, I think, are good professional photographs. They reveal the ambiance, show what’s taking place, and give you an idea about the people involved. All are what I would call first degree; they are what they are. I think that the World Economic Forum is happy with them.

The next day I was strolling around, and there was Ms Sandberg again. I took the fifth picture, and I must say I’m very pleased with it, because this one is simultaneously first degree and second or even third, too. (It was also in a previous post). It shows a typical scene at Davos, where people socialize freely and give the impression, possibly true, of having a very good time. It’s useful for the WEF. But it’s also a photograph. By that I mean that it goes beyond being about the relationship between the CEO of Wal-Mart and two senior Facebook executives, or anything at Davos itself. For me, it’s a triptych of laughing people, frozen forever. If you look at it for a while, you get more and more uncomfortable. The seeming joy, never ending, becomes painful. I suppose you could say that any picture is reality frozen forever (and I often do), but to my mind, this one works particularly well. It will go into my special black box.

Then a little while later, there she was again… And I like this sixth picture, too; another one for the black box! It’s purely second degree; I don’t think the World Economic Forum would ever use it, because it’s odd, and not particularly flattering. Here’s where my imagination takes me: Sheryl Sandberg is having a terrible personal problem. Christine Lagarde is trying to give her some comforting maternal advice, but Sheryl is so distraught that she’s not even listening; she’s lost in her thoughts, and keeps talking at the same time as Christine. Is any of this true? I doubt it, although you never know… So maybe it’s unfair of me to use this photo, because viewers might get the impression that I’m showing something factual and specific about two real people, whose names are mentioned in the caption.

I had some problems with the next picture, in black and white. One of the people who appears in it (whom I know) objected to my using it in my book “Earthlings” and my show at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. She said that my photography in general was “ironic”, and that I was making fun of her and the others. She demanded, by registered letter, that I give her veto rights over the subsequent use of the picture. I refused, saying that if I gave veto rights to everyone I photographed I could never show any pictures. But mostly because the irony was not directed at them, but at us, at humans in general, at me as much as at them. I sincerely believe that.

That’s equally true of the picture of Christine Lagarde and Sheryl Sandberg, but I do list their names. Maybe that changes things. What do you think?

And now, the last photograph, which has in fact been cropped from the laughter triptych. If you didn’t know where it came from, would you say that the woman was laughing or crying, waving or drowning? Might I have unconsciously been on to something?


(PS: I wrote this blog post a week and a half ago, and I’ve been waiting for the strategically right moment (whatever that means) to place it. In the meantime, the controversy surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s new book – which hasn’t even officially come out yet! – has been swelling. Last week Ruth Marcus wrote a column for the Washington Post about it, and she makes some observations which are not entirely foreign to what I’ve written above.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ruth-marcus-sheryl-sandbergs-valuable-lesson/2013/03/05/fc3612bc-85cb-11e2-98a3-b3db6b9ac586_story.html )