And they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover …

In March 2005 a young Lebanese girl is photographed, her hands held palms up; her face half-pressed to the glass of a bus window that drips with condensation; her gaze is distant, eyes peeking out obliquely, almost forlornly out of the picture. The bus is taking Shi’ite women to pay their respects at the grave of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, who was assassinated the month before, allegedly by agents of the Syrian government.

In October 2006, following an arduous selection process, the photograph forms the front cover image for Reuters: The State of the World one of 537 colour photographs in a weighty near-400 page book – encyclopedia, even – that attempts in images and words to chart the issues and themes that have marked the first five years of this already tumultuous century.

The cover image is apt, given our current political preoccupations. At once touching in its capture of the girl’s sweet innocence, it is thought-provoking in its cross-cultural references. For the pink head-scarf of this young Muslim girl is branded with the Barbie doll logo – a picture of the blonde haired puppet/doll, mass produced and exported from the USA in the last thirty years of America’s global cultural expansion.

The Barbie doll image provides an arguably more benign indication of the influence of the USA in the Middle East, than the Americans’ more frightening militaristic incursions into Islamic countries following the atrocity of the twin towers on 9/11, 2001.

The “state of the world” is massively complex and so one suspects, are the real ulterior strategic and territorial imperatives that underpin the United States and its allies’ “fight against terrorism”. Reuters’ role in the representation of such issues is a pivotal one but, unlike myself, the organisation is hidebound by rules of impartiality and political neutrality.

To that extent, some of the essays, which introduce each section of the book, seem anodyne in the writers’ analysis of the first five years of this century. They may be politically neutral but they inevitably reflect a Western world view, necessarily sanitised for the market the book reaches out to. Despite all the visual signs in the book of the world’s violent complexity, it says less about the state of the world than it tells us of a world view rendered safe for commercial consumption, by people of Western sensibility.

Some people, not all of them outside the United States, consider the country and its allies to be taking a high-risk route into the future, one that is in danger of spiralling out of control because of its apparent misreading and alienation of the people the young girl in the photograph appears to represent. That is not a line that a book such as this can openly opine.

Reuters: The State of the World appears to be designed for the coffee tables of the general public and the traders and money men who are the core consumers of its services as one of the world’s largest companies in the information business. Money makes the world go around and Reuters provides the financial men the information essential to the conduct of their dealings.

Reading the pictures between the words it is possible to make many more readings than my own surely limited interpretation suggests. There is a breathtaking array of dramatic images, not all of mankind’s inhumanity to man.

Given the incredibly narrow strictures incumbent upon photojournalists working for the commercial media, it is good to see their humanity, bravery, intelligence, wit and, dare I say it, political acumen still shining through these images. Many journalists and photographers, for Reuters and others, have been killed in their attempts to relay the facts as they see them: indeed, the book is dedicated to them.

Too much attention is paid in the book to the over hyped antagonism of religion and cultural difference. What part the media have played in whipping up the “clash” of cultures is moot. It is hard to deny that differences exist but they surely provide a smokescreen for issues more troubling to the world’s only super-power; its increasing weakness in the face of potential future world fuel crisis, the meteoric advance of a rampantly expanding Asia; and the USA’s massive failure as ‘world leader’ to meet its responsibilities in challenging global climatic change.

Climate gets too little attention in this book. It should have a section of its own. Perhaps this is a reflection of our misguided leaders’ different priorities. Hmm, that might explain the “state of the world”.

Mark Windsor