The picture of Yulia Tymoshenko sitting astride a motorbike is so blatant it makes you laugh. The uncredited, heavily Photoshopped photograph features the preternaturally young-looking 40-something wearing jeans and a tailored leather jacket while she revs the engine of an unidentified muscle bike. A blurred background suggests the open road, and light trails evoke speed and action. Then you notice she’s not wearing a skid lid to protect that perfectly coiffed mien, and you realise it’s because a helmet would obscure her personal logo – those trademark braids, curled over her head like a halo and reminding you of Carrie Fisher’s turn as Princess Leia in Star Wars.
The action references are equally explicit in another image of Tymoshenko standing before a space station floating against a blue universe criss-crossed with fantasy star bursts. There’s no record of her having gone into space, or even piloting a light aircraft, but the image, and her all-in-one space-themed zip-up, suggest that she is capable of both.
In another conspicuously manipulated image she is a robed crusader with sword and shield, while in a folk-inspired illustration she is a fertility goddess-cum-St Francis of Assisi. Yet another depicts her with such airbrushed perfection that she could be a porcelain incarnation of Eva Peron.
Apart from wondering how Tymoshenko has time to both run a country and pose for all these photographs, what strikes you is how unconvincing she looks to Western eyes – and how honest and authentic the recent US election graphics seem in comparison. Barack Obama may have been photographed looking mistily into the distance, with raised chin and brave gaze, but he steered clear of visually allying himself to mythic and heroic figures. Tymoshenko has no such reservations – her political image-making seems as much about fancy dress as economic policy. Which makes you wonder if there is a link between election graphics and political endurance.
Tymoshenko’s position is under threat, and while Obama has yet to prove himself, his only slightly idealised portrayal reinforces our longing for steady statesmanship. At least, that’s what his image-makers – and her detractors – would have us believe.•
Head to Head: Political Portraits is published by Lars Muller this month, priced £21.50