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Propaganda is a way that people’s opinions are influenced, usually in a biased or deceptive way; using words, images or videos for a political cause or purpose. As a general rule propaganda has had a negative effect on society and the people of the world, however in some rarer cases it has been a force for good.
Photography has played a role in propaganda ever since cameras started to become more widely accessible. The power of the image is undeniable, and as the saying goes, ‘seeing is believing’.
Even today, photography remains one of the most powerful tools of propaganda, playing a major role in the public perceptions of the recent conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Photographs of coffins draped in the American flag during the Iraq war helped to galvanize the population behind an unpopular and expensive war.
An image is easily remembered and its symbolic language can speak directly to the subconscious mind. Photography is used for propaganda reasons in newspapers, online, in election campaigns and on the nightly news.
Strictly speaking any form of political communication is a form of propaganda, however, in the usual usage of the word it refers more to the sinister aspects of this.
The Dark Side of Photography as Propaganda.
Crimean War (1853-1856).
The Crimean War was a brutal conflict fought by an alliance of Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey against the former Russian Empire in the Crimea. The war marked an important point in history though because for the first time ever reporters from the frontline started to tell the public back home the truth about the terrible conditions that the British soldiers had to endure, going short of food, with inadequate equipment and poor battle planning.
Public opinion in Britain started to turn against the war and so the government felt the need to act. They deployed photographers to the Crimean frontlines with instructions to present a glorious and noble conflict. The photographers focused on portraying the soldiers in a heroic light and never showed any of the suffering, death and chaos of the war. This helped to change the public opinion back in favor of the war and it was the power of photography that made this propaganda successful.
In May 2018, many of the major news outlets in the United States posted photos of children in cages at a detention facility along the US Mexico border. This triggered a huge outcry. Later it was revealed that the photo was actually taken in 2014 during the previous administration.
There was also another instance of a photo of a child inside a cage that was circulated which also turned out to be false (the child was inside a cage at a protest rally in Washington, DC).
In 2018, Fox News had to apologize when they showed several Philadelphia Eagles football players kneeling. The players who were kneeling were actually praying prior to the game and not protesting when the national anthem was played.
World War II (1939-45).
During the World War II propaganda played a huge role in the conflict. Both the Allies and the Axis forces employed huge regiments of specialized personnel to produce their war time propaganda, not only for their own populations but also for the populations of their enemies.
The Nazi government of Germany took this propaganda to new levels though and used manipulated photography, drawings and posters to portray the Jewish people as subhuman. This photographic propaganda was used to justify sending the Jewish people, and others, to the death camps. This horrific use of art and photography rightly gave propaganda a bad name following the end of the war and has left a deeply ingrained suspicion of governmental propaganda in the minds of people all across the Western world.
In the recent wars that the United States has fought (including the Afghanistan and Iraq wars), most of the journalists were “embedded”. They were part of the coalition forces. They only saw and reported on what the coalition forces allowed them to see. As a result if you watched the wars on CNN, Fox or MSNBC, or read about them in the major newspapers, you would not have known that over 150,000 to 200,000 innocent civilians lost their lives in these wars.
Most of the prominent figures we see in the media these days are very wealthy individuals (not your old school journalists). The last thing they want to do is to wander around the desert on their own and present a fair assessment of the goings on to people back home. When the five star hotels are taken over by the “journalists” and the “media”, you know that a conflict of some sort is about to take place in that area!!
The Civil Rights Movement of 1954-68 – A Positive Message of Hope.
The American Civil Rights movement that swept across the nation, destroyed the Jim Crow laws, ended the legalized racial segregation and inspired the world, made great use of photography to transmit their message. This was a fantastically successful movement that still motivates people to be their best selves today.
The photography of the time captured the raw emotions, the humanity and coming together of communities that ultimately led to the movement’s triumph, even against all the odds. This is certainly one of the rare occasions when propaganda led to a good outcome, and even now, many of the images from that time are still instantly recognizable.
As we said, strictly speaking the label of ‘propaganda’ refers to all political messages and while many political communications are laced with murky undertones and often sinister ulterior motivations, in the case of the Civil Rights Movement the medium of photography helped to sweep away oppressive laws and regulations that had plagued America for over a century by then.
Why is it photography so effective when used in propaganda?
Photography is an extremely powerful medium in all situations and so it should be no surprise that political leaders, dictators and authoritarian rulers would be tempted to use it to help to further their own ambitions.
Photography as propaganda has many attributes that make it so effective.
- Instant appeal.
- Can summarize an entire ideology in one image.
- Speaks to the subconscious mind.
- Highly recognizable.
- Easy to distribute to the population.
- Can bypass the logical mind.
- Highly emotive.
A Picture Tells a Thousand Words – What can we learn?
Photography is a beautiful art form and a potent tool but, like any other tool, if it is in the wrong hands it can be misused. Whenever we are confronted with dramatic imagery being used by politicians and leaders it is usually worth taking a second look and asking ourselves if the use of that photography may have an ulterior motive!
However, we must not allow the actions of history’s bad actors to influence our thoughts on the many wonderful aspects of photography, and although we must be aware of all the facets of its use this does not overshadow the fact that photography is a great force for good in the world. Photography can cross cultural boundaries, speak to people beyond spoken languages and communicate highly complex ideas in a single image.
Positive examples, such as the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the impact that photography played in ending the Vietnam War, should inspire photographers to realize that at certain times in history the entire fate of nations may hinge upon one image, and that when photography is used for the good, it can make a genuine difference to the lives of millions of people, not only in the present, but also far into the future.
Are there other examples you can think of where photographs were used for propaganda?