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Feature Article

Photos As Propaganda

by Ron Lovell

....October 3, 1993. A street in Mogadishu, Somalia. Paul Watson, a correspondent for the Toronto Star, asks his driver to stop the car when he sees a jeering Somali mob dragging the body of a dead American soldier down the street. He and his two armed bodyguards get out and he starts taking pictures.

Although the crowd is tense and angry, Watson continues to shoot. He is determined to record the grisly scene to prove to U.S. military authorities that American casualties are being mutilated, a thing he had heard Pentagon officials were denying after a helicopter had been shot down the month before. As the only white man in a sea of black faces, Watson was an easy target for a sniper, a stray bullet, or the mob itself. He does not leave, however, until he has the photographic record he wants.

Later, after he saw the printed photos, he thought them too graphic to ever be used by a news organization. "I didn't expect anyone would print the pictures," he told the American Journalism Review.

The next few days would prove Watson wrong as the horrifying image of the unidentified soldier was printed around the world. Along with the news that 16 other Americans had died and 77 been wounded, the photo came quickly to symbolize both the futility of the United States intervention in Somalia and the limitations of American foreign policy.

As propaganda, the photograph soon ranked with other searing images of the past, from burning battleships in Pearl Harbor to burning monks in Saigon, in its ability to influence policy. President Clinton saw the horrifying photo in a hotel room in San Francisco and immediately ordered a review of policy amid intense criticism in Congress and from the public. In a speech several days later, the president announced that, after an initial beefing up of forces, U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Somalia on March 31, 1994.

It was ironic that photographs would cause the U.S. to withdraw from this struggling African nation, because photographs of starving Somali people had caused President Bush to commit troops there the previous December. The small force was sent in to see that food aid was distributed, not stolen by the members of the many warring clans in the country. Somalis had welcomed troops. Indeed, the only force awaiting the Marines when they came ashore was a horde of TV crews there to record the event live.

The photograph of the dead soldier and other television and still images of the Somalia incursion are but the latest examples in a series of photographs in history that have changed the course of history. Sometimes the images were part of a deliberate government plan to influence public opinion. The massive effort of the Farm Security Administration in the Depression to document economic conditions in the U.S. exemplifies that. More often than not, however, the photos were taken by journalists who happened to be at the right place at the right time to capture a memorable image that brought an event into proper perspective.

No matter what the reason for their being taken, photographs have become a powerful instrument of propaganda: techniques and methods of influencing or controlling the attitudes, opinions, and behavior of others by the use of words and other symbols.

Photos of dead Americans are nothing new, however. They were first captured on film in the American Civil War by Matthew Brady and a team of other photographers who, armed with special permission from President Lincoln, roamed freely over battlefields in the North and South, beginning in 1861 at the First Battle of Bull Run, where Brady himself took a number of photographs and came under fire.

On September 17, 1862, one of Brady's assistants, Alexander Gardner, was on hand to photograph dead Confederate soldiers along a rail fence on the Hagerstown Pike in Maryland after the Battle of Antietam. He and colleague James F. Gibson took 95 photos of what became the bloodiest single day in American military history (26,134 casualties).

Brady brought these and other photos of the battle together with 10,000 portraits of famous people he had taken over the years the next month for an exhibition at his New York gallery on Broadway and 10th Street. Crowds of people walked around the photos, some looking at images through magnifying glasses so as to see the often horrifying details. Wrote a New York Times reporter: "...there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures and makes him loath to leave them."

For the first time, people were seeing death and a record of a news event only weeks after it had happened. The photos were never printed in a newspaper or magazine, however, where they would have caused even more of a stir. Instead, it was the custom for battles and other events of the war to be sketched by artists either on the scene or working from photos. They were later published in books by both Brady and Gardner. They were still shocking in these forums but did not have the same impact that immediate publication would have caused.

That kind of result would have to wait until World War I, where both official and unofficial photographers roamed the battlefields. Their work was augmented by servicemen who took their own cameras to war to shoot photos that offer an interesting, unofficial, unprofessional view. Action reporting in any quantity would come with the invention of the 35 mm camera in the late 1920s, which brought on photojournalism as a profession. The World War I era cameras were usually too bulky to encourage their wide use in the chaotic conditions of battle.

News photographers who did work in battle zones were severely restricted by allied governments. They were almost completely excluded from the Western Front but were allowed into Egypt and Mesopotamia. British government photographers took an astounding 40,000 images both to record the war and to use for propaganda purposes.

After the U.S. entry into the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a Committee on Public Information to disseminate facts about the war and coordinate government artists, cartoonists, painters, advertising people, and photographers to aid him in his effort. War news was censored at home and abroad but, given the rather primitive nature of photography, this affected reporters more than photographers. News of general engagements, of casualties suffered, and of troop identifications was released only if it had been mentioned in official communiqus.

Until the 1930s, the use of photographs for propaganda by the American government had been unofficial and inadvertent. This changed drastically in 1935 with the organization of the Resettlement Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although set up to aid the rural poor, the agency also had a historical section. Photography quickly became part of the mission of the section, whose information division was headed by Roy Stryker. (In 1937, the Historical Section was transferred to the Agriculture Department's Farm Security Administration.)

For Stryker, the assignment offered the opportunity to use photography as a tool for change. He wanted to show the two-thirds of Americans who were relatively prosperous how the "submerged third" were coping with the Depression.

Stryker began by collecting photographs already in government files for use with news releases and in brochures published by the Resettlement Administration. He also developed the concept of traveling photographers to take photos of worn-out soil to show that people could not work it and would need to be resettled in more productive areas. He also wanted to take photos of adverse conditions and the agency's efforts to improve them. Publicity people would make the photos available to Congressional committees, other government agencies, and the press.

Stryker hired his first photographers in 1935 and the results were more than anyone had imagined. Their work went well beyond the standard publicity shot. Because of the excellence of the photographers involved--people like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, and John Vachon--many of the photos became classics. And many of the photographers who had signed on because of their own bleak job prospects became famous later in their own right at Life magazine and other publications.

Lange's "Migrant Mother #4" quickly became one of the most memorable images taken by FSA photographers. At the time of its first publication and in the years since, the photo of a haggard mother and her children came to symbolize the Depression. As with many of her photos, this one came by circumstance and luck.

She took it at the end of her first field trip for the FSA in 1936. She had already passed the entrance to a pea pickers camp near Nipomo, California on a March day when she decided to turn back and drive in. When she got there, she immediately saw the woman sitting in her rundown tent with two of her seven children. The woman told Lange the family was living on wild birds the children had caught. There was no work in the area because the pea crop had frozen on the ground. She could not move on, however, because she had sold the tires on her car to pay for food. Although she spent only ten minutes taking six exposures of the woman, Lange captured the plight of millions of Americans--and the consciences of millions more--with her haunting photograph.


Figure 1
Confederate Dead by a Fence on Hagerstown Road by Alexander Gardner 1863
(Albumen Print) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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Figure 2
Migrant Mother #4 by Dorthea Lange 1936
(Gelatin Silver Print) Courtesy of the Library of Congress
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