The Politics of Imagery

By Jaylin Paschal

Trigger Warning - Some of these images may be disturbing re: violence, death, etc.

Image is everything, and in some cases, it is the only thing--especially in our modern digital, visual world. We are able to capture and share images like never before, sending visuals a world away at the click of a button. These images are made accessible to the masses for consumption, digestion, and regurgitation. They become our topics of discussion, the subjects we avoid, and the pictures we carry around with us in our heads. Images are a powerful force that we both invite and shy away from. We respect our ability to see these images as both a blessing and a curse, saying things like, “What I’d do to see that” and “I wish I could unsee that.” Because off all of the power images hold, both our most influential institutions and our next door neighbors use images to their advantage.

Shortly after Muhammad Ali's passing, CNN tweeted a photo with the caption, "A look at the life and career of Muhammad Ali, who has died at the age of 74."

The image is fierce. The look in his eye. The seeming closeness of his fist. A favorite among images of Ali. It's a powerful picture, which captures his essence almost flawlessly. Almost. There is one detail in the image CNN left out.

CNN strategically cropped out a vital, central point of the image. The photo is no longer one of the controversial, outspoken activist transferring his aggression onto white supremacy, or "The Great White Hope," but rather one that is more easily digestible for the (white) mainstream.

After seeing this version of the photograph, it is difficult to still consider the tweeted version a powerful image. We see how it has been stripped of so much of its meaning, and how a political image is now political for a different reason.

One tweet from one media outlet has provided clear insight into the way we use, misuse, and manipulate art and images to start dialogue, manage perception, and control narrative.

It is no secret or discovery that images dictate many of our thought processes. Artists and photographers often take advantage of the way images can incite and elicit emotion. Images can be provocative and unsettling in a way nothing else can. Imagery offers both a corrective and erroneous influence on certain cultural, political, and socioeconomic beliefs and norms. Visuals prompt discussion. Powerful images add credence to "I can show you better than I can tell you," and support for methods catered to "visual learning."

Alfredo Jaar's Life Magazine, April 19, 1968 is the perfect example of how images are used to convert specific messages or offer critical commentary.

Life Magazine, April 19, 1968 by Alfredo Jaar

Life Magazine, April 19, 1968 by Alfredo Jaar

Jaar took a photo from Life Magazine of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. He then showed graphically (and simply) how divided the U.S. was after King's assassination. Black dots were used to represent the black funeral-goers, while red dots were symbolic of the white attendees. Jaar brought attention to the irony of a man nationally revered for his life's call for unity, having a funeral which was so clearly divisive. The piece politicizes the already political murder of Dr. King, to further explore the state of the nation's race relations.

Images are able to "politicize" in an especially impactful manner. In the same way words can be conjured or misconstrued or quoted or misquoted, images are at our mercy. It is not only when we choose to capture an image, or when we choose to present it that it becomes political. It is when we decide to crop it, like CNN. Or when we decide to break it down element by element, like Jaar. Or when we decide to edit things out, or photoshop things in. Images become political when we censor nipples; when we lighten the skin of models of color; when we caricature entire populations to match our prejudices and stereotypes; when we distort history. Images become political when we decide to completely control the imagery. Which is always.

Kendrick dapping up President Obama, an Old Navy ad with a Sikh model or a mixed family, Kim Kardashian's nude selfies (which she self-censored),  "Tank Man" from Tiananmen Square, Hitler with a child in his lap, Malcolm X peering out the window with a rifle, a three year old Syrian immigrant's body washing ashore, Devin Allen's Baltimore coverage, and Gloria Richardson pushing an officer's bayonet out of her face. All of these images have sparked widespread conversation or controversy, adding to the long list of political photos which have reshaped or redirected the mainstream narrative. And whatever you do to the narrative, you do to the audience.

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But this imagery management makes perfect sense. If seeing is believing, then why wouldn't we control imagery? Why wouldn't our major power institutions (government, interest groups, religious organizations, media) fine tune what we see?

This widespread political manipulation of image is an age-old method of mind control used by every side of an issue--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Racists made sure they controlled image, which explains why Jesus is portrayed as a white man, why the round, black noses of Egyptian artwork have been destroyed, and why even today few people of color are seen on television or in magazines. But the forces against racism have had a handle on image as well. This is why Emmett Till's mother chose to have an open casket funeral; why civil rights activists were willing to get the shit kicked out of them, as long as the press was there to take a picture or record it. Managing image is a brilliant strategy, effective regardless of the means involved or ends aspired. If you control what it seen, you control what is thought.

No matter what, images will be politicized. If not by our major institutions, then by ourselves. Perhaps this is because assigning visuals to some aspect of our own agendas or belief systems is the only way we can understand them--or maybe even the only way to understand ourselves.

We use images to compare, to contrast, to contradict, and to challenge. Much like the two photos below are used on reference to one another. The first, an image of the black West Point graduates raising their fists is often connected to the second photo, of two Yale students doing the same. Both images provoked reaction: pride from one side, and outrage from the other. One side feeling a sense of unity, the other feeling a sense of exclusion. Regardless, the reactions to these images support the idea that we project our own lifestyles, experiences, and opinions onto what we see before us; always putting ourselves in the position for introspection, whether we acknowledge this position or not.

And because we have such a strong tendency to insert ourselves into images, we need to pay close attention to how our self-infusion does some unintentional editing. Not only is it important to analyze what we see and what we don't see, but also what we want to see. Our perspective is so often tainted by bias, skewing an image and its message. Margo Jefferson explored this idea in an essay for Aperture's "Vision & Justice" issue, asking "What am I projecting onto what's here? What must I let go of?" And we all should ask ourselves the same, and try to simply view an image as is. Our analyzations and interpretations will be much for meaningful, then, and therefore better political tools.

So look, and look closely. Then look again.