Leaders Show Off Muscles and Media Savvy

We learned this week that Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, is super buff and likes to fish, and that his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, needs the help of Photoshop to keep his love handles from hanging over his bathing suit.

Between the paparazzi and the press pool, summer vacations have become one more occasion for world leaders to mold their images in the media. Taking some time off to fish in Siberia or canoe in New Hampshire offers the added bonus of letting politicians not only look healthy and robust, but also just like one of the guys.

While leaders have always had their special places to retreat during the summers -- be it the royal family's Balmoral Castle or the Kennedy's Hyannisport -- vacationing these days very often means working, or at least working the press.

The French magazine Paris Match came under fire recently when its competitor L'Express accused the publication of digitally removing President Sarkozy's paunch from a photo of him canoeing during a recent holiday in the tony town of Wolfeboro, N.H.

Sarkozy's spokesman denied the president had anything to do with the tweaked photo, but the magazine is owned by Sarkozy's friend, businessman Arnaud Lagardere, and the incident highlighted the leader's close relations to influential people in the media.

"It seems like someone was trying to do him a favor, but when it comes to doctoring photos, things that turn out to be lies actually hurt you more than help," said David Rees, chairman of the photojournalism department at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Vacations, experts told ABCNEWS.com, offer a chance for leaders to be humanized. Rather than being their two-dimensional, shirt-and-tie, man-behind-the-podium selves, they become three-dimensional personifications of health, family values and old-fashioned fun.

"I was part of the pool when John Kerry went windsurfing [during the 2004 election campaign]," said Pulitzer-prize winning political photographer David Hume Kennerly. "It promotes a vigorous youthful image and why not? When you look as good as Sarkozy or Putin, what's wrong with posing with your shirt off?"

Like President Bush, Sarkozy and Putin are known for their athleticism. Sarkozy is often seen riding a bicycle, a departure in style from his predecessors, particularly former President Jacques Chirac, who would have thought it gauche to be seen paddling a canoe topless on an American lake. Putin, who in these latest photos is shirtless, toting fishing pole and hunting knife, is a former judo champion.

If this all sounds like a romanticized version of life, that is the point, Rees said.

"The problem is press secretaries give photographers limited opportunities to photograph politicians, and photographers seize on whatever opportunities they have," he said. "Photographers reinforce a romanticized agenda, and that's been a problem for some time."

Knowing their audience is also important. It may be hard to imagine an American president mugging for the cameras shirtless in a river, though the public has seen pictures of the Clintons in their bathing suits necking on the beach, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in his swimsuit running in the surf.

"The photos of Putin played very differently in Russia than they would in the U.S.," said Mark Jenkinson, a photography professor at NYU. "Russia has a whole thing about sunbathing and physicality and nature, and this is just the kind of thing they go for."