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Photography as propaganda

Here I discuss the use of photography as propaganda, primarily in the context of the work of Ansel Adams.

Dedman’s useful analysis of propaganda quotes Jowett & O’Donnell’s definition:

‘Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.’

I immediately think of harmful manipulation when I hear the word propaganda, reflecting on Nazi Germany. However, the word has come to take on much wider use and is also used in the context of intentions that are generally accepted as desirable, for example in conservation efforts, or relatively harmless in the case of advertising.

Adams was an active member of the conservation group, The Sierra Club, which lobbies to create national parks and protect the environment from destructive development projects. His images were first used for environmental lobbying in the 1930s for creation of a national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada. He went on to become an elected member of the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club for 37 years.

Hyde describes the Sierra Format photobook series and how the Sierra Club began using sophisticated lobbying techniques in the 1950s and started ‘what eventually became known as environmentalism’.

Esterow, quotes Adams in his last interview prior to his death:

‘I wish I had gotten into the environmental work earlier because I think that’s a citizen’s fundamental responsibility. The channeling of creative arts in that direction has been very difficult. As I said, I never made a picture with a direct environmental objective, but if they can be used for that, that’s fine. I think young people are pretty aware of the dangers, but they’re sort of pessimistic. They think everything is set up and it doesn’t make a difference who they vote for. They don’t realize they have to go out and vote themselves.’

When further exploring the topic of photography as propaganda I found a YouTube video by writer and Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris, The Nature of Truth, Art, and Propaganda in Photography.

Morris argues that there is no inherent truth in photographs, and urges viewers to think carefully about powerful photographs that on meanings that are not necessarily the truth, and asks the question “aren’t you at least a bit curious about what you’re actually looking at. Just a tiny little bit?”

In conclusion, I think that Ansel Adams work was used as a part of propaganda, but was not propaganda in itself. It is the words around the image during the lobbying that are needed to deliver the propaganda.

References / video

Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences. Unattributed lecture. [http://www.physics.smu.edu/pseudo/Propaganda/ – accessed 21.4.15]

Esterow M (1984). Ansel Adams – the Last Interview [online]. Available from: http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/art%20news/905N-000-001.html [accessed 21.4.15]

Hyde P (nd). Messages from the Wilderness. [online video] http://lumieregallery.net/wp/5415/messages-from-the-wilderness-2/ [accessed 21.4.15]

Morris M (nd) The Nature of Truth, Art, and Propaganda in Photograph [online video]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsBU55NXKTE [accessed 21.4.15]

Sierra Club. History:Ansel Adams [online]. Available from http://vault.sierraclub.org/history/ansel-adams/ [accessed 21.4.15]



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