In the age of television and internet streaming videos, photography is no longer as pervasive a tool of social control as it used to be. Its golden age is now over, since it flourished and died along with the great dictatorships of the 20th Century. In fact, the most eloquent examples of the use of photography as a means to seduce people and annihilate their ability of a critical analysis of reality (in order to submit their will to the goals of a governing elite) can be found in the period between the 1920’s and the 1950’s. It was in such period that the fascist, nazi, and communist propaganda saw in photographers the perfect craftsmen who could transform images, often fake or posed, into messages to convey a particular information about what was going on in their country. In Italy, it was through the pictures taken by anonymous photographers that Benito Mussolini managed to give the people the idea of being part of a great nation, where everybody (intellectuals, sportsmen, the Church, the unions, the common men) were proud to demonstrate their faith in the fascist regime. It was through them that he was able to depict the country as a plentiful land, led by a good-hearted man embodying the virtues of the great Roman emperors. Most of those photographers were working for the same institution, the Istituto Luce, a formally independent organism that was actually controlled by the fascist regime. Its purpose was to operate as a modern news agency, but any proof of the disastrous economic and social conditions of many areas of Italy (such as Sicily, Veneto or Sardinia) was withdrew from the press. So, there were no news, if they had to be bad news. Another example of Mussolini’s attempt at distorting reality was the photographic book Italia imperiale (Imperial Italy), published in 1937. The author, Manilo Morgagni, wrote a visual elegy of the virtues of the dictator.
In the same period, Adolf Hitler was making a similar use of photography in Germany, especially thanks to the collaboration of Leni Riefenstahl, who later would become one of the most famous artists of the world. The book Schoenheit im Olympischen Kampf (Beauty in the Olympic games), published in 1938, was a collection of her shots of the German youth, taken during the Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936; it was an instrument of Hitler’s propaganda aimed at celebrating the perfect bodily features that only the pure Aryan race could boast. In this way, German population was given an amount of visual messages that confirmed the superiority of their race, so that there was no questioning about the crimes their leader was committing in foreign countries. On the other hand, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt (The unknown Hitler) was an homage to the Furher from his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and was completely dedicated to him and his private life. It showed a leader caressing children and enjoying mountain resorts, depicting him as father and protector on the nation.
In the USSR, Iosif Stalin reduced the avant-garde photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko to a mere instrument to convey the perfection of a state working in the best imaginable way, where every movement was preordained and nothing could go wrong. In fact, the usual subjects of Rodchenko were military parades and public meetings, during which everybody had a specific role to play and a proper place to fit in. Moreover, Stalin made a wide use of photomontage to insert his figure in all the topic moments of the October Revolution of 1917, so that the people were induced to think that it was him who actively participated and fought in the process that led to the creation of a land that was supposedly governed by them. Another famous example of the way photography and its manipulation were used to attain the consent of the people is the picture taken by Yevgeny Khaldei in Berlin on May 2nd, 1945. It is the image of a soldier of the Red Army raising the communist flag on the roof of the Reichstag. Since Khaldei arrived too late, when the action had already been accomplished, he asked a soldier to repeat it in order to fix the moment on film, and give Russian population another proof of the power of their leader.
Further east, Mao Tse-tung was acting in the same way, one of his preferred photographers being Li Zenghshen, who took also many shots of the atrocities committed by the regime but hid them until the late Nineties, when he thought it was safe to show them to the public without risking to be prosecuted by the communist regime.
The above mentioned examples are taken from the major dictatorships of the past century; nonetheless in the 1930’s the greatest democracy of the world, the USA, had a similar approach to photography, although lacking the militaristic vision of the country that characterised the totalitarian regimes. The American government did not make a wide and evident use of photography to make its citizens agree on its political and financial behaviour, but in some occasions documentary images were used as proofs of the necessity of its decisions. The Farm Security Administration, for instance, was founded in 1935 by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of his New Deal program aimed at rescuing the nation after the great depression of 1929. Its goal was to relieve the rural populations from their poverty and many famous photographers (Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans among the others) were hired to document their situation, in order to inform about it people living in the urban areas. But this project was also meant to provide a visual justification on how and why the government was spending public money, preventing any questioning by the richest part of the population. The best output of this policy was a book compiled by Archibald McLeish, titled Land of the free and published in 1938.
In the meanwhile, another way to use photography in order to exert social control was beginning to see the light in the USA. But this one was completely different from the propaganda experienced in Europe, since it was focused on not showing, rather than on showing. It is the case of the 216 nuclear tests held by the Army between 1945 and 1962 (in the desert in the state of Nevada or in the middle of the Pacific Ocean). They were documented by anonymous officials mainly through aerial photography, but the pictures were kept in secret archives till very recently, because the government thought that such experiments might arise doubts in public opinion about nuclear power and the cold war. This attitude quickly developed and expanded to the majority of the nations, prompting governments to prevent their people from looking at what might endanger their consent. A form of undeclared censorship has been watching over photography all the time, and war reporters have been its principal targets. One of the most recent and outstanding case is the story occurred to a now famous picture taken by Kenneth Jarecke during the first Gulf War (1991). He shot the body of an Iraqi soldier, burnt to a cinder by American bombing while he was retreating with his troop on the Basra road. This picture was published abroad but not in the USA until the war was definitively over, since it might counter the Pentagon’s notion of a technological a war amended of all the atrocities of the previous ones.
Nonetheless, nowadays television has taken over the role that was played by photography, and it has become the principal tool to exert social control. Probably, this function is still accomplished by photography only through commercials, but in this case the aim is altering people’s perception of reality in order to influence their needs. The most interesting aspect of this function is that who is sending the message to the public usually does not depict a fake situation as it were real, nor does hide a particular side of it. Most commercials evoke a hypertechnological world or a lost one, like in Marlboro Country’s advertisements, where values and lifestyle are as simple and good as in the good old days. Two opposite worlds that have just one feature in common: they can be reached through the product advertised. This kind of social control is very different from that exercised through propaganda and censorship, but it must be noted that its target is not the citizen as a political individual, but the consumer as a participant in the local and global market. Moreover, there is not such a monopoly of the mass media as the one that is proper of a governing institution, but all the organs emitting messages to control the public are constantly competing against each other to be most visible. Consequently, this particular use of photography requires bigger and more accessible platforms wherefore communicate, such as glossy, fancy magazines and huge city billboards.
Michael Famighetti: Underexposed, Aperture 173, winter 2003, pages 14-16.
Marshall McLuhan: Understanding media, Routledge, 2002, chapters 2 and 20.
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger: The photobook: a history. Volume 1, Pahidon, 2004, chapter 6.
Ian Jeffrey: Photography, Thames and Hudson, 1981, chapter 9.
Li Zhensheng: Red-color news soldier, Phaidon, 2003.
Michael Light: 100 Suns, Contrasto Due, 2004.