Thursday, September 6, 2012

It's All Propaganda

Here in the western world, we periodically have a little flurry of news surrounding some obviously faked photograph released by a foreign government, or occasionally by some foreign stringer. Two missiles in flight when only one was launched, and so forth. We get to have a little fun laughing at the foreigners and their lame photochop skills, but mostly we get to feel superior. Our guys don't do that!

To be sure, we're perfectly correct. Our guys don't do that. Our guys propagandize just as hard, but almost never with badly faked photographs. A side effect of these bad fakes, which our guys are no doubt quite pleased with, is that photographs which are not faked get an extra little boost of credibility. Our media organizations usually have some policies in place about not publishing fakes, to further boost this credibility. The policy will say that only certain types of edits are acceptable in photographs for publication. This is completely silly, any propagandist worth his pay can lie as effectively with a crop (moral, decent, acceptable) as with an erasure (immoral, unacceptable, and just plain wrong).

News Corp.'s papers, the New York Times, and everyone else obscures parts of the truth by selecting which photographs to display. They, and we, select photographs to support at best a partially true narrative, eliding things we do not wish to show and emphasizing things we do wish to show. You and I do it too. In this sense, every photograph uploaded to Facebook is a lie.

I recently attended a more or less typical American wedding, complete with a professional wedding photographer and a second shooter. I also took some photographs. The professional's images are entirely typical, and portray the wedding as a beautiful and idyllic event with at least one important deletion: the ever-present pacing specter of the photographer and his pop-pop-popping flash. My photos were mostly of my daughter, who is two, and of the photographer and other workers making the wedding happen. My images present another, equally false and incomplete, narrative of the wedding.

It is a poor propagandist who cannot thoroughly and effectively promote any desired narrative by commissioning and selecting the right images. The FSA/OWI archive is a 100,000+ photograph paean to this very idea.

A straight photograph tells the exact truth of the instant the shutter was released, right up to the edge of the frame. And that is no truth at all.

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