Today’s Public Diplomacy practitioners work in a loud, visually saturated, media-intense age when “post-truth,” “many truths,” and “alternative facts” are themes of academic, social, and political debate. They work in many different cultures at a time when the claims of identity, rather than universality and common humanity, gain sway.
Issue 47 (2017) of Foam: International Photography Magazine, published in the Netherlands, presents this in a series of striking photo portfolios and matching essays. Although the issue as a whole embraces more, its title is “Propaganda: No power without image control.”
University programs in communications and Public Diplomacy often address “propaganda” through the lenses of communications, politics, or national security. The Foam issue considers it through the lenses of photographers.
The decades since World War I to the present have generated a large body of scholarship and opinion on “propaganda.” Definitions are many, and there’s no firm agreement on what it is and what it’s not. In general, the essays in this volume favor broad definitions of the term, bringing advertising, corporate image campaigns, and the presentation of political candidates within the ambit of propaganda.
The issue’s editor-in-chief, Marloes Krijnen, wrote that “the portolios shown here are mainly by contemporary artists. These artists share a critical attitude toward propagandist media strategies and the visual imagery deployed within them.” “Power cannot exist without control over images,” Krijnen continued, “so it is unsurprising that parties eager to gain or retain power are often extremely adept manipulators within media culture. This holds true for commercial or religious power as well as for political authority.”
The essay by Marcel Feil, “Alternative Facts,” is perhaps the most provocative. Propaganda, he wrote, is “the manipulation of public opinion by means of appeals to emotion and personal belief.” His essay embraces “opinions, facts, fabrications, lies, convictions and whole-or half-truths,” “post-truth,” postmodernism, spin doctors, social engineering, promotional culture, symbols and logos, white/black and push/pull propaganda, and brands. Readers will sometimes nod, sometimes wince, and sometimes grind their teeth at his blunt, unsparing judgments.
In “Propagating the Self,” Mirjam Kooiman asks “How do today’s political leaders use photography and social media to propagate their image?” Views of Vladimir Putin, Asma al-Assad and her husband, and President Trump provide examples. She praises White House photographer Pete Souza for “endearing images” of President Obama as “strong signs of soft power which made the most influential man on earth surprisingly human.”
Hilda Haest in her essay, “Signs and Symbols,” notes that “Propaganda and photography have always been the best of friends and the worst of enemies.” A second, hard-hitting essay by Haest, “Tomorrowland,” reviews Mathieu Asselin’s “Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation,” which “meticulously deconstructs the carefully crafted corporate image.”
In “Perception is the Battlefield,” Kim Knoppers teases out how Simon Menner compared typical news and advertising images in his “Role Models” portfolio. Menner showed how Western photo compositions were adopted by actors as different as East Germany and Islamist movements. In a second essay, “Appetizing,” Knoppers interrogates different photographs of food.
Simone Donati’s “Hotel Immagine” portfolio – examined by Jörg Colberg in “Faith Exposed” – portrays how faith has become “spectacle” in the worlds of politics, religion, sports, and entertainment. “White Noise” by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa presents Christopher Anderson’s “Stumped” series of tight facial shots of political candidates during the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential campaigns to examine how images are projected.
“Whitewash” (text by Mirjam Kooiman, photos by Harit Srikhao) looks at poses of belief in Thailand in the aftermath of the political crisis of 2010. Wafaa Bilal’s photos and another Kooiman essay on “Virtual Jihad” examine the images in video games. In her essay,“Tripping on Stoned Moon,” Helen Hsu offers an interpretation of Robert Rauschenberg’s photographic treatments of the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969.
Fascinating also is David Campany’s review of a 1933 issue of USSR in Construction on the building of the White Sea Canal. Readers may compare the Soviet magazine issue with the documented history of the canal’s construction by prison labor in The Black Book of Communism (1999).
I am on the record that Public Diplomacy is not “propaganda.” U.S. Public Diplomacy and international broadcasting are truthfully attributed, abjure falsehoods, and rely on the democratic methods of open press conferences, interviews, provision of administration statements and testimony before Congress, Q&As with interlocutors representing all points of view, providing first-hand knowledge through exchanges, and the standards of broadcast journalism. “Active measures” and “disinformation” are not in the U.S. Public Diplomacy toolkit. To my mind, “propaganda” always involves falsehoods, outright or mixed into a narrative. I have, then, some misgivings about the various definitions, boundaries, and interpretations of propaganda in the Foam volume.
That said, here’s my take on why it’s a valuable read for Public Diplomacy practitioners. The credibility of American Public Diplomacy rests on Jefferson’s “facts submitted to a candid world,” meaning truth, or – at the least — discerning truth in the give and take of democratic debate. It relies, too, on the integrity of its practitioners. The Foam issue serves these needs when it presents its case studies, allowing the reader to test general principles, and judge when a presentation crossed a boundary and became “propaganda.”
A final note: The link above is an abridged online “flipping book” version of the issue – providing 88 of the volume’s 234 pages. Ordering a hard copy from the publisher in the Netherlands runs about $45 including shipping and handling. Its large format, presentation of photos, print quality, use of different colors and weights of paper, and typography make it a pleasure to hold and read.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.