This past Monday, I was asked to photograph the president of Switzerland as he arrived at the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council.
A bit of interesting trivia: Switzerland does not have one single head of state, but seven. They are the seven people — representing different political parties across the spectrum — who sit on the Federal Council and govern the country through consensus. In that way, all seven people share the duties of a traditional president.
The presidency, which is an honorific title, rotates among the Federal Councillors on an annual basis. This year’s president is Ignazio Cassis, a trained medical doctor who hails from the beautiful canton of Ticino, an Italian-speaking region in southern Switzerland. Interestingly, Monsieur Cassis comes from an immigrant background; he was born an Italian citizen and became a naturalized Swiss citizen later on. His day job is to serve as foreign minister for Switzerland.
As we waited outside for the president to arrive, the mood was somber. We were — and are still — thinking about the devastating humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. I felt deeply shaken and powerless about the state of the world, like I did when following the news about the Taliban rolling into Kabul last August, and the desperate flight of people afraid for their lives.
Soon, the president’s car pulled up, and Monsieur Cassis emerged. He greeted Madame Valovaya, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, with an enthusiastic elbow bump. I stood a few steps away, snapping one photo after another. This was the closest I had ever been to a head of state, and it surprised me how much he looked like a regular guy. He looked like someone who could be walking down the street in Zurich, or Bern, or Geneva, on his way to the office.
But of course, that illusion only lasted for a moment. As I followed them inside, I reflected on the fact that he was not a regular guy, but a leader. Someone who is tasked with ensuring that an entire nation and its citizens were safe and protected. Someone who plays a role in this interconnected mess of a world that we live in. Someone who has power and responsibility that the rest of us did not. In that moment, I suddenly understood why people are so drawn to strong leadership during times of war, times of distress. Churchill. Roosevelt. Lincoln.
This may be a strange time to recommend a movie, but I’d really like to share this one. Last night I re-watched Everything is Illuminated, a 2005 indie film starring Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz, directed by Liev Schreiber. It’s based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a young Jewish American man who travels to Ukraine to search for the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. The topic may seem heavy, but the movie is eccentric, hilarious, and deeply memorable. Here is the trailer.
In the past month, I’ve walked to France twice to get groceries. It’s so easy. I take the bus to the very last stop, and there it is, the border, an arbitrary line at the foot of the Salève mountain.
The villages there are so peaceful. In Chinese we have a saying, shi wai tao yuan, which loosely translates to “the land of the peach blossoms”. According to Wikipedia, it’s “an ethereal utopia where the people lead an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries.”
Oh, the weight of being human.