FRONT PAGE / POSTS
Mild Smiles and Monocultures
by Martha Arango| Stockholm, Sweden
Tuesday, 30 August 2011
tags: culture, europe, global/local, making sense, semiotics
The Oslo bombing and massacre of 69 young politicians in the making at the Utoya island youth camp brought far-right extremism in Norway to global attention on 22nd July 2011. The killer Anders Behring Breivik, smiling mildly, is pictured in the link to this piece.
The shock surrounding these events unfolded partly against the initial media assumption that the explosions would turn out to be the work of Islamist terrorists – also against received wisdom globally with regard to Scandinavian nations and populations generally being peace-loving and tolerant. This received wisdom has not, of course, always corresponded with the Scandinavian reality nor does it necessarily do so today. The purpose of this short analysis is to point to a more everyday and institutionalized nationalism as evidenced in one image, a photograph of Swedish politician Björn Söder which appeared on the cover of Dagens Nyheter , one of the country’s leading newspapers, in January 2011.
Sverigesdemokraterna (the Swedish Democrat party) aims to a win between 12 and 15 percent of the votes in the next election, claims party secretary Björn Söder. The article talks about successes so far and how much money the party is going to receive to support their next election campaign. Some codes and connotations embedded in the accompanying image give a good example of how photography, often working subconsciously, can impact on collective consciousness.
In the picture we see a strong, apparently healthy and wholseome, youthful looking man from the Swedish white middle class. He looks into the camera with a mild smile that signifies openness, empathy, an implicit benevolence. There is nothing here of the alien, the dangerous, the Other in any sense. This is coded as a Swedish cultural norm, in the guise of complete harmlessness.
In the photograph Björn Söder’s clothing is formal and elegant – these are the vestimentary codes of Swedish bank clerks, lawyers and politicians. He wears dark suit with a modern silk tie, the colour of which matches the blue of his eyes. His hair cut overlays on this a note of trendiness for young men. He is half bald not in a depleted (cup half empty) way but in a way that speaks of robust and confident contemporary masculinity. The contrast between the mild expression and strong body is again a contemporary code for aspirational Swedish manhood.
The picture shot from below places the reader in an implicitly subordinate position and so creates an idealizing effect for its subject. Björn Söder´s photo is also taken indoors in a large dark room – and some of the lights are on. The most striking of these is the lamp on the ceiling which suggests a halo over the politician’s head. Suddenly the party secretary secretary is elevated to a kind of semiotic sainthood, an aura of sanctity accruing to someone who could be a kind of everyday version of an angel from heaven.
This photograph could form the basis of an interesting semiotic case study. It is an equivalent from today to the kind of thing Roland Barthes picked up on in Mythologies in the 1950s – photographic realism appearing to open an innocent ‘window on to reality’ while constructing a clearly ideological message, albeit one that sits comfortably with what all ‘normal’ people think, what is ideologically incontestable because culturally it goes without saying. To an outsider this might all appear to be accidental or innocent enough. However Björn Söder’s party won seats in the Swedish parliament for the first time in latest election, pursuing a programme that criticizes immigration policy and that fights to keep Sweden pure from the ‘dirtiness’ of a multicultural society. Young men like Anders Behring Breivik, the Utoya killer, emerge from a backdrop of a more routine and insidious cultural conservatism. The mild smile and halo of the Northern angel may easily, for readers who identify with an emerging ethnic and cultural diversity. mask what feels, ironically, closer to a diabolic intent.
© Martha Arango 2011