Take a look at this photograph. What do you see?
White House photographer Pete Souza snapped the shot of the president and his national security team during "an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House" the day bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.
The image ran on the front pages of newspapers across the country, including this one. While it's not an action-filled photograph, the shot captures important people during a very important fraction of a second, and there exists a certain power in it.
We know they're looking at a video screen, but we don't know what's on the screen. Is it a direct feed from Pakistan as the mission unfolds? We know the Situation Room is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to monitor intelligence information and allows the president to communicate securely with American military commanders and foreign heads of state around the world, but there are many unknowns about why these people have gathered.
It leaves a lot to interpretation. The shot works on your imagination, and maybe the power lies between what it says and what is unknown.
The image has been parsed for facts far and wide. Is that a burn bag for top-secret documents between President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden? What's the blurred-out image in front of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
Some have joked that they're watching Sex and the City.
We asked experts in nonverbal communication and behavioral science for their takes on the photograph. Obviously, video would offer better readings, but they came away with some interesting impressions.
Maggie Pazian, a nonverbal behavior expert and owner of the facial coding and analysis firm Visual Emotion, says Obama's posture reveals he's comfortable. "His position is more of him sitting comfortably forward. He's got an intense look in his eyes. His body posture matches that. He's interested, he's focused."
Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of Success Signals: Understanding Body Language, says his position is complex and shows several emotions.
"You'll notice he's not just leaning forward, he's hunched over forward," she says, like he's subconsciously protecting his pelvis. "Forward motion shows the desire to act, but the hunched body language shows a desire to act, but also of fear. 'I need to act, but I'm fearful of acting.' "
On his face, Wood observed his brow hooding over his eyes and a slight outcropping of flesh on his cheek, which she interprets as a sign of protection and anger, and a great deal of stress. And Obama seems fatigued.
"When you look at him now," she says, "he could almost be the father of the Obama who won the election."
What about where he's sitting?
Wood says his position in the room makes it hard to tell who's in charge. We can only guess at whether Obama sacrificed his chair, or if he prefers sitting away from the table, but Wood says "he's not making the decisions. He's listening. … He doesn't look like the first in command by any means." Someone who didn't know Obama wouldn't think he was the president, she says.
But Dane Archer, a sociology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, says it's clear that the buck stops with Obama, who bears the most focused expression. His forward lean and shoulder position shows a sense of anticipation and also apprehension.
"He appears to be careworn, worn down by one's responsibilities," Archer says. "I worry about him a little."
Marina Sarran, a sociologist and group culture consultant, notes that Obama's position in the room raises a question about hierarchy. It "doesn't indicate a position of high status," she says. "So, whose room is it?"
Technology can reroute hierarchy, "But my sense," says Sarran, "is that that's not Obama's table and that's not Obama's chair. … Whenever this meeting started, Obama was not one of the operational people."
Wood noted the space around Obama is revealing. Notice the crowding opposite Obama. Not on his side. "Decisions other people make are revealing," she says. "You can see that nobody's aligning with him."
But Pazian says that may be due to the dimensions of the room in the 5,000-square-foot complex on the ground floor of the West Wing, or decorum.
"They wouldn't crowd around the president," she says. "That wouldn't be appropriate."
The experts point out that the eye is drawn initially to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her expression — her wide eyes and her hand covering her mouth — gives the impression that she's taken aback.
Pazian says you can't know from the photograph how Clinton is reacting. Her eyes, Pazian points out, hold the same expression as others in the room. And her hand?
"It could just be her coughing or hiding a yawn for all we know," she says.
In fact, Clinton said on Thursday that may have been the case.
"Those were 38 of the most intense minutes. I have no idea what any of us were looking at that particular millisecond," Clinton said. "I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever."
Archer doesn't buy it.
"I don't think this is a sneeze shot," he says. "I think that this is a real shot. And I think the fact that everybody in the room has rapt attention supports that."
Covering the lower face is called masking. The mouth and lower face send messages and can be deceptive. So we mask when we want to hide those messages.
"I think that's what we have here," he says. "I imagine she held that pose for several seconds."
"Biden is more up, and his facial musculature is more relaxed," says Wood. "He doesn't seem to be more fearful or afraid (than Obama). He seems to be in his element."
"Biden looks like he's taking a casual look at whatever is going on," says Pazian.
Says Archer: "He looks more relaxed than the president does, certainly."
Also interesting is what can't be seen: Biden's hands. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Biden's spokeswoman said he was "holding his rosary ring," which represents one decade of the rosary.
Three men have their arms crossed, typically a defensive posture. But Pazian says it can also be a normal, comfortable stance. That may be the case for Adm. Mike Mullen, standing to Obama's left with his hands behind his back. With his military background, that posture could be most natural.
Archer and Sarran suggest that the two in the back — Anthony Blinken, national security adviser to Biden, and Audrey Tomason, director for counterterrorism — appear to be crowding to get a look. Their expressions are more carefree than the others', suggesting they're detached or less responsible. "They don't seem to be integral to the group," Archer says.
The experts say most expressions demonstrate that the situation is tense and demands focused attention.
"There's a lot of suspense in this room," says Archer.
"You look at the eyes of each person and you see them reacting to whatever it is they're reacting to," says Sarran, "and they portray pretty ominous feelings."
Powerful people in a powerful moment, but they somehow seem like spectators, waiting for some conclusion, focused on the actions of others.
Kind of like us.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.