Until very recently, Alvaro Uribe’s face was only registered in two photographic variations: in the first we saw him with his usual half smile, in some scene of domestic bliss; in the second he always appeared serious and blank-faced in his Senate seat, imparting instructions to an underling or whispering in his wife’s ear while pointing his index finger at someone or something during a military parade. These images belonged to two well-established modalities of that sub-genre known as ‘caudillo’s portraiture’: on the one hand, the family man, even capable of exhibiting a few gestures of tenderness with calculated spontaneity, like holding the reins of the horse his grandchildren are riding; on the other hand, the austere patriarch absorbed in his task of carrying out crucial decisions for the destiny of the nation. Both groups of photographs, however, had a common denominator that any competent student of images would spot at once.
I mean, of course, the glasses, those thin-framed glasses, so thin that the lenses seem to float above the face; photosensitive lenses that darken when the light strikes the glass directly and lighten artificially in the shade or under the brim of a Panama hat —another symbol of a pleasantness that Uribe has cultivated with remarkable skill to present himself as the typical Colombian small rural landowner, the hard-working head of a family enjoying a day off. Uribe’s glasses propose an interesting, chameleon-like game of representation, capable of offering both the murky signs of transparency and the obvious signs of opacity depending on the stage, the lighting and the characters. It could be said, from the simple examination of these images, that those glasses have worked throughout the years as a true mask, all the more perfect because it’s become inseparable from Uribe’s face, and with its various tones of chiaroscuro, it has accompanied the political life of Colombia in the last two decades: an optical version of the changing humor that the former president displays in his Twitter account, from which he can influence almost daily the journalistic agenda of the country.
That’s why I was taken aback by the photograph that Uribe himself circulated on his social media a few weeks ago, after the Supreme Court issued a security measure that placed him under house arrest during the complex investigation on the grounds of witness tampering that has now fallen into the hands of the Office of the Attorney General —under the command of an official loyal to the caudillo’s supporters.
In this photo, breaking with the visual coherence of his public images, Uribe decided for some reason to dispense with his old mask and took off his glasses, baring his face, his eyes, the expression that had remained hidden during all this time under the photosensitive mask. My first reaction was one of disbelief. I came to think that it was a fake photo, a prank to give the portrait a haggard, paranoid, tormented look. But the photo is authentic and was disclosed by the former president himself, probably in an attempt to show himself as a victim of persecution by the judges.
It is, beyond the intentions of its issuer, an unusual, ominous image in which the subject portrayed looks almost unrecognizable once the refractory mask that protected him from the light of the world has been removed. Uribe is shown in a sinister state of nudity, of genuine childish helplessness, and we even manage to see beneath it all a pair of eyes of an unexpected greenish shade —the greenish tones of a sad community pool, where nobody dares to swim anymore. It would seem that something in that face, in those empty eyes, is crying out for help, and not precisely to escape justice.
Philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva uses the term “abject” to designate a certain state of collapse in the subject-object relationship, a breakdown of the symbolic pacts sustaining the link between the viewer and that which is being observed, whose repercussions in the social field are unpredictable. The abject bursts in when the mediations guaranteeing a space of legibility for the images are suppressed and it is, therefore, an instant where the delicate psychic surface that sustains us is torn open so that we fall into that which Lacanian psychoanalysis calls ‘the Real’, that is, the beyond of any possibility of symbolizing, the fall of all mediation, of any reflective screen, of any mask that regulates the illumination of power.
To my understanding, the rupture, however fleeting, in the current regime of public images of former President Uribe, that is, this change in their rate of appearance, conforms to Kristeva’s concept of ‘the abject’. If so, this minuscule but significant unveiling of the face, the emptiness and the extreme solipsism behind the mask will go hand in hand with an offensive in the area of discourse, with a ramp-up of tone and an even more aggressive rhetoric when it comes to blocking any relationship with the truth, especially against the public voices that Uribism regards as hostile to its interests.
Perhaps —and believe me, I wish I were wrong—, that picture of Uribe without his glasses has launched a new phase of the regime.
Meanwhile, I’ve counted more than fifty massacres so far this year; the increasing cooptation of institutions threatens to definitively suppress the independence of powers, and drug trafficking runs rampant across half the country. At the same time, offices of the presidency is putting together a list of people who negatively affect the image of the government, as a FLIP [Foundation for Press Freedom] investigation recently revealed.
Unless something prevents it, we can very well start reciting that famous phrase from the movie Matrix in which Lacan finds echo: Welcome (again) to the desert of the Real.
*This text originally appeared in Vice Magazine