Lula, The Rhetoric of the Image, Past and Present

Besieged, Lula has plunged back into embrace of the crowds he loves. For Brazil’s left, the corruption indictment of ‘Lula’ da Silva is a nightmare, and massive street protests both for and against the former president have followed. In this essay from Piaui, filmmaker Joao Moreira Salles studies the visual record of Lula’s public life.

Those who have followed the terrible events of Friday, March 4th [when Lula was forcefully brought in to testify in one of Brazil’s biggest corruption scandals], maybe noticed a man wearing a dark jacket, a black beard and hair in need of a trim who never left Lula’s side. That was Ricardo Stuckert, Lula’s official photographer. During the press conference given by Lula later that day, which was broadcast by the Workers Television, the TV channel owned by the metalworkers’ union of the São Paulo region known as ABC, Ricardo could not be seen. But he could be seen on footage of the same event shot by Globo Television, which broadcast their image using a wider camera angle. Stuckert appears at the left, restlessly filming and taking pictures, sometimes from a distance of less than couple of feet from Lula. After the press conference, at 5 o’ clock in the afternoon, when Lula was arriving home and got out of his car still in the driveway, Stuckert quickly got to his side again, and both were engulfed by sympathizers. Minutes later, from the playground area of the building where he lives, Lula was waving to sympathizers while Stuckert moved in every direction, as if he was taking part in some frantic ballet dance. At night, when they visited the Bank Workers Union, Stuckert stood at the front row of the scaffold, camera in his hands, just inches away from Lula.

A selection of the photographs shot by Stuckert that day is available at the website of Lula’s Institute. The pictures were shot in many places, but their motif is recurring: Lula being swallowed by the many arms of those who stretch out to try to touch him, like what happens to the images of Catholic saints during religious processions. It is the rhetoric of the hero of the people, happy among his peers, from whom he gains stamina to fight his political battles.

This is surely a way of portraying Lula that differs a lot from traditional corporate media coverage, where Lula is often shown isolated (and that is one of the ways to use photography for political purposes), sometimes with his head down, and sometimes with his head up in anger, if not fury.

The fact that Stuckert never left Lula’s side on that March 4th says a lot. Because Lula wanted to be photographed on that day. Those who are guilty seldom wish to be photographed. Surely Bill Clinton did not ask his official photographer to document his every step when the House of Representatives impeached him on December 1998. Lula, on the contrary, used last March 4th to reaffirm his own image.

There’s an extraordinary scene in the film by Brazilian director Leon Hirszman called ABC da Greve [The “ABC” of the Strike, a pun on São Paulo’s ABC region, where the strike began], about the Brazilian metalworkers strike of 1979. The workers are occupying a square waiting for the speech of their leader. He is there, but the mass of people can’t see him. But they all know he is about to appear before them from a terrace that overlooks the square and that had been used previously by other union leaders as an improvised balcony for speeches.

Lula waits for the right time. He stays back, only meters away from the edge of the terrace, invisible to the crowd. The camera shows his whole body. He is smoking and wearing a polka-dot shirt. He seems tense, because it would be irresponsible of him not to be, and determined, because the outcome of the strike will depend on him, and he seems to be fully aware of the fact that this is a historical moment and he is the lead figure there.

Somebody whispers something into his ears; Lula replies with two or three words. Someone else wraps an arm around his neck and says a few more things; Lula tilts his head and hears something he does not like, and with a firm gesture he frees himself from the person’s arm. Until the end of the scene, almost a minute later, no one else directs a single word at him.

At the age of 34, Lula exudes authority but not hierarchy. Making a gesture only possible among those who feel they are equals, someone grabs Lula’s hand and lights a cigarette using the one Lula is smoking. Lula barely looks at the guy. His eyes are focused on the crowd. The crowd goes into an uproar around him, like satellites under the effect of his gravitational pull. Lula himself doesn’t move a muscle. Even though he is surrounded by his comrades, at this grave hour he stands alone. It is quite a striking image.

The loneliness of power is commonplace. It is hard to find a photographer working for powerful people that doesn’t succumb to the cliché pictures of the lonely figure surrounded by marbles, or the picture where the leader is seen with his back to the camera contemplating the horizon through the window of their office. That’s not the case with Lula. His world has always been gregarious and noisy, more like a football stadium than a library, more like a steakhouse than a tearoom. During his 2002 campaign, which I followed closely because I was shooting it for a documentary called Entreatos, Lula was never alone, not even like he was in the movie scene we’ve discussed. And that’s why that scene stands out. At least to my recollection that is the last public footage of Lula separated from the others and looking inward. Lula shapes his judgments not in silence, but talking, when he sometimes may speak more than he listens, much like the tennis player that improves his game by throwing balls against a wall.

But above all, Lula feels invigorated stands before crowds, like a plant in sunlight. And Stuckert knows that. Remaining faithful to the character he has to photograph, he produced a set of public images of Lula in which the leader is almost always surrounded by a crowd of people. Hungarian photographer Robert Capa used to say that you need to get close to the object you want to photograph. Stuckert seems to have learned that lesson. He never uses telephoto, that camera lens that is ideal for isolating subjects and capture solitude; instead he uses a wide-angle lens, which, in terms of optics, works like a big group hug enveloping anyone that enters into the shot.

Anything that is placed close to a wide-angle lens grows in size, and so does the former president through Stuckert’s lens. In politics it is possible to choose different lenses to look at things. And discipline demands that the wide-angle lens be used for Lula, so he won’t disappear in the crowd, and that the shutter aperture be tight so no one is denied focus in the picture. “Here they all come”, like photographers sometimes say – referring to the teary eyes people crying, the wrinkles on the skin of those who work under the sun, the teeth of those who scream or smile.

Federal judge Sergio Moro [who issued the order that Lula be compelled to testify]justified his measure saying that it was meant to preserve public order. After public opinion was divided in their reactions to the fact, he said that “Measures were taken in order to preserve the former president’s image”. That, at best, is a naïve statement; at worst, it is a cynical one. Justice will decide if Moro’s order was legal or not, but at the very least he made a huge tactical error. It is hard not to think that political motives are behind this legal action against Lula. Politics is made of symbols, and nobody masters them better in Brazil than Lula. When he gave the speech last March 4th from the seat of the Workers’ Party, Lula gave new life to a whole set of symbols.

His March 4th speech was very different in tone, spirit and volume from another of his famous speeches, given in 2005 after many in his party were found guilty in another corruption scandal and he, as president apologized to the nation. During that time Stuckert didn’t have to work that much. Back in 2005, Lula said he felt embarrassed; today he says he’s outraged. The difference between the two speeches is that in 2005 his tone was formal and tame; today, it is improvised and spirited. The theme back then was recomposition; the theme now is rupture. Lula spoke softly in 2005 and screamed in 2016.

During the 2002 campaign, and mostly throughout his first term, Lula used to say jokingly that after he became an influential man, the luxuries that had been denied to him all his life were now being thrown at his feet. He liked to insist that those privileges were his own now as well, but he wouldn’t say it out of spite, but as a sign that the working class had the right to demand for themselves the privileges of the bourgeoisie. This was a recurring theme with him, but few understood it. He would praise suits (“The only ones who like workmen’s overalls are those who never had to wear them”), and that was the period in which supposedly people from every social stratum could sit at the same table. Not anymore. “Romanée-Conti” [a French wine]and “decanter” are words he uses now with disgust, for they are symbols of what he no longer desires, symbols of what will be forever denied to him and his peers.

But those who have followed him throughout the years he was president have witnessed the countless times in which Lula incorporated to his vocabulary fancy words and academic expressions (to which he referred, jokingly, as “chic words”). In 2009, for example, after singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso criticized him for his disregard of the Portuguese language, Lula started including the Latin expression. “sine qua non” in his speeches, but aways adding a comment afterwards, like “See, comrades? Now I use chic expressions like ‘sine qua non’”. But Lula was mocking the elites and boasting at the same time. Rare words, like wines, should and could be tried by everyone. More than usually Lula now is stressing his humble origins. In the March 4th speech, he intentionally showed how difficult it was for him to pronounce the expression “coercively conducted”, a clear message to the elites of the country.

And when he roared from the seat of the Workers’ Party, what was heard was a voice that was partially forgotten, the voice of the pre-2002 Lula. In his victory speech back then, before thousands of people in Paulista Avenue, the newly elected president gave a moving but soft speech, emphasizing his working-class accent whenever he could. The beautiful scene from ABC da Greve ends with Lula walking towards the crowd. He begins speaking softly, but then becomes fired up. And that’s the moment where the movie spectator of today recognizes the great speaker in Lula. The accent in 1979 and in 2016 is still the same, rough and jagged; it hurts the ears of his opponents and incites his followers. Lula has put his mythology in action again.

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But it so happens that this river has already passed. The water, once crystal clear, is now murky from the impurities of the last few years. And we are left to wonder if when the river floods again if the town square will be crowded or not.

Joao Moreira Salles Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard.