Is staging photos equal to propaganda?

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In a recent article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post  the Obama administration is once more accused of continuing to move from transparency to propaganda.  In this case the issue is that the White House has increasingly excluded news photographers from Obama’s official events and is instead releasing images taken by in-house photographers.  This of course implies two problems: misinformation through staged photography and lack of access to public scrutiny.

A photo should be the representation of a unique split second of time.  Something that genuinely happened, as of itself, and will never repeat itself (see more from Erik Kim).  But what about if if this natural “moment” never in fact existed and was “created”? The moment was a fiction not a fact.

The main complaint from the White House Correspondents’ Association in a letter to White House press secretary Jay Carney last week was: “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases.” At the sme time, lack of access is blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government.

Indeed, complaints of this kinds are not new to the current US Administration. Another crtitical passage was marked in May 2011, when President Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Here is what happened to photographers that day, from a report by Al Tompkins:

“As President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.”

The complain at that time was about the lack of access to the real speech, which was re-acted only to the benefit of photographers.  A few days later the White House said it was ending its long-running practice of having presidents re-enact televised speeches for news photographers following major addresses to the country (see Huffington Post).

After two years, it appears that, instead of moving towards wider access, the White House feels more comfortable with releasing photos taken by its own photographers.  The headline of the latest Washingtn Post story states: Obama’s photo policy smacks of propaganda.

This label should really scare the White House.  It recalls the improper use of photography made by too many, from the Nazi to the Soviets. Indeed, the best examples of photograph alteration and falsification come from communist Russia. Unwanted persons, so-called “enemies of the people” were not only killed, but also removed from photographs where their presence was unwanted. Photographs were altered with the intent of changing the past.

Here are – side by side – two versions of the same picture, with Trotsky no longer appearing aside Stalin :

trotsky-alt1 

Technology has made alteration much easier. If you double that with lack of access, who can trust photography any longer as a news source? 

In his Blog, Joel Harding recalls that the label of propaganda reminds one of Joseph Goebbels, and poisons the well of trust and weakens ‘our negotiating stance as a nation’.   Harding concludes:

Yes, one wants to present the best possible picture of the President or any leaders, but historically news organizations have had relatively free access to photograph the President.  This administration promised greater transparency, which is a separate issue, yet related in this case, exclusion of news photographers smacks of propaganda and manipulation of images of the President further makes the case of propaganda coming from the White House. In addition to your other problems, Mr. President, please don’t add propaganda to that list?

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About fveltri

Former NATO and military spokesperson, currently Public Affairs consultant and President, ComIPI (www.comipi.it)
This entry was posted in propaganda, public affairs, public information and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Is staging photos equal to propaganda?

  1. Joel Harding says:

    Excellent article! Clearly stated, powerful message, congratulations!

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