The Yangon kiss

US President Barack Obama and Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi embrace after speaking to the media at Suu Kyi's Yangon residence on November 19, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Nicolas Asfouri

By Nicolas Asfouri

The photograph of US President Barack Obama warmly embracing a rather-taken-aback Aung San Suu Kyi at the end of a Yangon press conference unleashed a torrent of commentary across Myanmar and the wider region.

In Southeast Asia, people traditionally greet one another by pressing their hands together in a prayer-like salute. Physical contact and exuberant displays of affection are often avoided.

Obama’s visit to Myanmar on November 19 was a historic moment. It was absolutely essential to capture the image, and there was a lot of pressure.

We all suspected such a moment would arise when Obama visited opposition hero Suu Kyi in her Yangon home, but we didn’t know when it would happen. We’d had other chances to shoot Obama in Myanmar but these were all formal moments without a standout image.

When the president arrived, he and Suu Kyi greeted each other in the traditional style, pressing hands and smiling broadly. They also shook hands briefly.

There’s the photo, I thought to myself. Nothing special.

US President Barack Obama is greeted by Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
AFP PHOTO/Nicolas Asfouri

But after the meeting, Suu Kyi and Obama held a quick press briefing outside the house. I chose to go with a slightly wider perspective on my camera. It was then that Obama and Suu Kyi looked at each other and said something. Obama hugged Suu Kyi and firmly kissed her firmly on the cheek.

No one was expecting it.

Luckily, I had wide enough lens angle to capture both the shy and embarrassed expression on Suu Kyi’s face, as well as Obama’s encircling arm. 

Two man hold up a banner as Obama's motorcade leaves for the airport in Yangon.
AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad