Who exercises power? How can one person shape the politics of an entire nation? And what do its rulers reveal about a country?

For many Germans, the parliamentary elections of September 2021 marked a new era. After sixteen years, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s term in office had ended. The peaceful transition of power was taken for granted. However, the narrative of how power is wielded and transferred differs for each country and throughout history. Based on these observations, the photographers Patrik Budenz and Birte Zellentin began to artistically explore the influence of individual politicians on the history of their countries.

The project MACHT visualizes one hundred years of global politics through the lens of its protagonists. For all states, portraits of those in power between 1921 and 2021 were selected and then superimposed. The intensity and thus the visibility of each person varies according to the length of their term in office. The result is a series of 199 images that are both irritating and iridescent and serve to reinterpret the classical portrait of a ruler.

The series reflects a multitude of geopolitical events and developments. The twentieth century in particular was marked by wars, shifting borders, annexations, system upheavals, changes of rule and the founding of new states. In order to explore the complexities of the global entanglements of power, Budenz and Zellentin delved deep into the history of each country and had to make many judgment calls. Who should appear in each country’s portrait and on what grounds? How to handle countries that were divided, newly-formed, or those that lacked international recognition? How are the political heads of the two German states, for instance, to be united in one picture? In some cases, it even seemed appropriate to replace the holders of political offices with the actual rulers. Take Deng Xiaoping, who controlled China’s fortunes for 18 years as “Paramount Leader” without holding an institutional office.

The result resembles a rulers’ gallery of the world that provides a lens for reading global power structures. Male dominance as well as imperial and colonial history become immediately apparent. Portraits of countries with long-term autocratic rulers look markedly different than portraits of countries with a multitude of (democratically elected) heads of state. The effects of previously dictatorial systems seem to reverberate even if a state subsequently became a democracy—the portrait of Italy springs to mind.

At the same time, the images reveal many ambivalences and ambiguities. For example: does the succession of many short terms in office illustrate orderly, democratic changes in power or unstable governments? It becomes apparent that some democracies also permit long terms of office, such as those of Angela Merkel or François Mitterrand. In comparison, a dictator like Adolf Hitler has a visual intensity similar to those long-term democratic rulers, even though the political structure of his reign was fundamentally different.

Faces that recur in numerous images, such as Josef Stalin or Josip Broz Tito, point to expansionist policies and the disintegration of great empires into smaller nations. Interestingly, one might discover a facial feature – be it striking eyebrows or a moustache – that is prominent in the superimposition, even if the person was present on the world stage for only a short time. Could this indicate that even a short term in office may have a lasting impact on a country’s fortunes?

The series of images invites to examine typologies of power, global political history, as well as their effects up to the present. The work of Budenz and Zellentin not only illustrates power structures, but also reveals that politics – as abstract as it may sometimes seem – is always defined and determined by people.