For Mary Jane Enguist, the small black-and-white photograph was in its own way a work of art. "It's a beautiful picture. A great, great picture," she said of the snapshot showing her sister, Kathryn Koob, who for nearly 14 months has been held hostage in Iran.
"She really looks good -- she's back at her goal weight," added Engquist, thinking back to the days years ago when the two sisters struggled through a weight-watchers program together.
Like the film clips of the 43 captives televised over the past five days, the pictures which Algerian diplomats brought to Koob's family and at least a dozen other hostages' families Sunday showed captives who seemed physically healthy and were apparently in good spirits. But some of the families who received the photographs during a meeting Sunday at the Algerian Embassy found them to be gifts with a bittersweet tang.
The pictures provided the intangible details that no letter ever could: the expression of relatives' faces, the tilt of their heads, the look of their hair and their clothes. But just as they could reassure, the pictures could also serve as mirrors for the families' worries and fears.
"He looks awful," Wallapa Tomseth said of the photograph of her husband, Victor, one of three Americans held at the Iranian foreign ministry. "He's thin. His hair's so long he looks like a hippie." At this notion, she forced a little laugh.
In an accompanying letter, written on Christmas Day, Tomseth told his wife that he had been doing a lot of exercising -- sit-ups, particularly. But she remains worried because she believes he is not being allowed outside, or out of the room where he, Michael Howland L. Bruce Laingen, the charge d'affaires, are being held.
"The photo of my husband was not too good," said Marge German, wife of hostage Bruce W. German, the embassy's 44-year-old budget officer. "In his letter he said he was feeling okay but was having some problems with his eyesight. I got a notice from his eye doctor about a year ago -- he's well overdue for his checkup."
At the meeting held Sunday afternoon at the Algerian Embassy residence in northwest Washington, two Algerian diplomats -- who said they had seen all 52 hostages over the Christmas weekend -- reported that none of the hostages had complained about health or food problems, according to Marge German.
The pictures of the hostages and their letters "were a surprise," said German, who added that these personal mementoes were passed out after a lengthy discussion of the status of the three-way negotiations on the conditions of the hostages' release.
She also said that the Algerians who hosted the meeting -- including Algeria's ambassador to Iran, Abel Karim Gheraied -- "have really gone out on a limb trying to answer the questions of the families. Human-interest questions, you know. Like one person, asked, 'Why are some [of the hostages] in short-sleeved shirts? Don't they have long-sleeved shirts?' And the Algerians answered, 'They didn't need long-sleeved shirts. The room was very warm.'"
Other questions, including some about the hostages' location and the amount of news they receive from the outside world, were diplomatically turned aside, according to several family members who attended the meeting.
"I asked if the hostages had an idea of what was happening in the world," said Pearl Golacinski, mother of hostage Alan Bruce Golacinski. "They answered me by saying, 'I think [the hostages] are so preoccupied with their situation that such things don't matter to them.'"
In addition to taking out photographs and messages, the Algerian diplomats also brought the hostages small packages from their relatives. The parents of hostage John Limbert, for instance, sent him crossword puzzles, paperback books, dried apricots and a recorder.
"His letter indicated he had received the package -- and he was especially pleased with the apricots and the recorder," said the hostage's father, John Limbert Sr.
The meeting "wasn't just a cold duty-type get-together," Limbert added. The Algerians, he said, were "very warm and friendly, very hospitable and highly professional. I think they're genuinely interested in ending this."
Sunday's meeting, scheduled about 24 hours ahead of time, included the families of approximately a dozen hostages -- families who either live in the Washington area or were visiting here. One State Department official said yesterday that the meeting was the Algerians' idea, but that U.S. officials apparently advised them that it would be extremely difficult to bring relatives in from out of town on such short notice.
But for those who did attend, the meeting afforded an opportunity they had not had since last spring, a chance to talk to people who had seen and talked to their relatives. "It's different from another briefing," said Engquist. "This just makes it much more personal And you could sense a great deal of warmth, of feeling from the ambassador [Gheraied]."