Using Our Perceptions to Discover Ourselves: Two Iconic Embraces

We often hear that feedback says as much about the person giving the feedback as it does about the subject of the evaluation.

Our perceptions can tell us loads about ourselves. Take a quick look at the photo below, and take a few notes on what you see.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Elena FriasKeep looking at the photo above. In case you do not already know, the photo was taken at the funeral of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in March 2013. On the left is Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, and on the right is Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. Now, pause and take a few more notes on what you see in the photo.

Did your perceptions change between the first and second times you took notes? Before you proceed, take a moment to reflect on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that underly your perceptions.

Once you’ve done that, how about looking at another photo? Same instructions: take a look at this photo, and jot a few notes about what you see. Perhaps you have already seen both of these rather iconic photos.


Keep looking at the second photo. If you did not already know this, the photo was taken during the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany) in 1979. On the left is Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and on the right is East German President Erich Honecker. Now, take a few more notes on what you see in the photo.

Did your perceptions change between the first and second times you took notes? Before you proceed, take a moment to reflect on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that underly the perceptions you noted this second time around.

Finally, compare your perceptions, and your values, assumptions, and beliefs about both of these photos. In what ways did you respond similarly? In what ways differently? Why?

In fact, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was criticized for consoling Chavez’s mother in this way; she is not a member of his family, and thus, such touching is haram or forbidden. While my research shows the photo to be real, there are reports of the photo being doctored in order to cause problems. I personally find the actions captured in the photo quite believable: a man consoling a grieving mother and bridging cultures in the moment. Below are two sources for those of you curious to learn more about this photo and the response to it:

  1. Daily Mail article
  2. IranPulse English language news blog

It was quite commonplace for Communist leaders to kiss on the mouth as an expression of brotherhood and solidarity. This iconic photo was taken by Régis Bossu, a freelance photographer for European Stars and Stripes, Stern, Spiegel, and Sygma. Most observers of the time viewed this Brezhnev-Honecker kiss as more enthusiastic than usual. The photo was quickly and widely circulated.

Berlin, East Side GalleryIn 1989, during the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dmitri Vrubel painted a replica of the kiss on the Eastern side of the Wall. If you wish to learn a bit more about the photo and the painting, here are a couple of links:

  1. Lite Strabo Stories from History blog
  2. Wikipedia

While we can learn much about history and politics from photos such as these, we can also learn about customs and values. And, perhaps most importantly, we can learn to see our own cultural filters and biases a bit more clearly. Exercises such as these can be used to complement the learning we gain about ourselves via the Cultural Detective Self Discovery.

Coincidentally, when she was proofreading this post for me, our editor, Kathryn Stillings, shared with me that she had just read this article, about our perceptions (socially constructed) of race: What Does “Black” and “White” Look Like, Anyway?: Obama and His Grandpa. I share it with you as it would seem to support, as well as build on, the point of this post. I particularly love the morphed photos at the bottom of the article.

Before I close, I’d like to thank a few of the members of SIETAR Argentina, who recently used the second photo above in a training, and reminded me of it after so many years.

And, in conclusion, I leave you today with a few quotes:

There is no truth. There is only perception.
—Gustave Flaubert

Science is nothing but perception.

Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.
—Edward de Bono