War photography and propaganda

Originally a neutral term used to describe a deliberate attempt to influence the emotions, attitudes and actions of a specific target audience, propaganda has essentially now become a negative term. One associated with manipulative advertising techniques, distorted images of reality, and outright racism:

American anti-Japanese propaganda poster made during WWII. Copyright information “Tokyo Kid Say”, artist unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Japanese_sentiment#/media/File:Tokio_Kid_Say.png.

So the other day when my sister sent me these pro-communist Vietnam propaganda posters by Cuban artist René Mederos I was initially taken aback at the first thought that passed through my head: How very beautiful they are.

Como en Viet Nam by Rene Mederos, ca. 1975
Como en Viet Nam by Rene Mederos, ca. 1975
René Mederos, 1969
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Mujer Vietnamita” (Month of the Vietnamese Woman), ca. 1970
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Mujer Vietnamita” (Month of the Vietnamese Woman), ca. 1970
René Mederos, 1969
René Mederos, 1969
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Ofensiva del Tet” Month of the Tet Offensive, ca. 1970
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Ofensiva del Tet” Month of the Tet Offensive, ca. 1970
René Mederos, 1969
René Mederos, 1969
“FNL de Viet Nam del Sur,” 1969
“FNL de Viet Nam del Sur,” 1969
René Mederos, 1969
René Mederos, 1969

The communist cause of the Vietcong is portrayed here as a kind of utopian celebration, with swirling lines and bright colours creating a distinctly reassuring and relaxing impression. I spent quite some time staring at these posters, and a strange sense of peace settled over me. Maybe it is the colours, maybe it is the lines – but it is surely something to do with the otherworldliness of these images that makes them so appealing. Like idealised cartoons of reality, they reflect a highly aspirational vision of revolution and communism as the artist sees it. When I scrolled down to the bottom of the page, the last poster held me captive for quite some time:

René Mederos, 1971
René Mederos, 1971

*1

Ho Chi Minh sits serenely by a riverside, reading books in a warm descending twilight. Perhaps one of the most celebratory depiction of Ho Chi Minh I have seen so far, he sits peacefully unaware of the viewer, silently minding his own business while he reads about how to move his country and his people forward towards a better future.

There is something extremely hypnotic about this image. This is the ‘Uncle Ho’ of the Communist chants, and of poems such as Chu Van’s The Moon Remembers Uncle Ho:

‘Looking at the moon I remember the smiling face of Uncle Ho. Seeing the clouds reminds me of his gray hair.

The wind is like his young hands stroking the beard of the revered and loved Uncle Ho.

The young moon comes out early, in the afternoon.

The moon has waited for the night so many times.

Do not be sad, moon!

Moon, people are busy on the military training ground.

Visit the compassionate soldiers,

Visit the villages of the homeland.

Where the people are, the moon will follow.

Follow the footsteps of Uncle Ho and write a people’s poem,

A happy poem full of the sentiments of Uncle Ho.” *2

After dwelling on these posters for a while and thinking about different representations of war and conflict, my mind wandered to photos of the war. Instantly they provoke a different feeling:

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823352/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823352/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823353/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823353/
Hue 1968 | 11 Feb 1968, Hue, South Vietnam --- South Vietnamese Woman Carrying Her Wounded Son https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812561/
Hue 1968 | 11 Feb 1968, Hue, South Vietnam — South Vietnamese Woman Carrying Her Wounded Son
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812561/
US soldier with a South Vietnamese child, Vietnam (Philip Jones Griffiths, 1967) https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812570/
US soldier with a South Vietnamese child, Vietnam (Philip Jones Griffiths, 1967)
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812570/

War photography, like propaganda, is not objective. A mission to inform the public about a conflict is not without a moral stance on that conflict. We see this when we contrast the photos above – all representations of the tragedies of war – with celebratory photos such as this one, of Kamikaze pilots in WWII:

Chiran high school girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to a taking-off kamikaze pilot. The pilot is Second Lieutenant Toshio Anazawa of Army Special Attack Unit. Copyright information “Chiran high school girls wave kamikaze pilot,”photographer unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chiran_high_school_girls_wave_kamikaze_pilot.jpg#filelinks
Chiran high school girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to a taking-off kamikaze pilot. The pilot is Second Lieutenant Toshio Anazawa of Army Special Attack Unit.
Copyright information “Chiran high school girls wave kamikaze pilot,”photographer unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chiran_high_school_girls_wave_kamikaze_pilot.jpg#filelinks

The power of images becomes obvious here, as well as the differences between photography and art, and what can be achieved when the two are combined. A comparison of war photography and propaganda posters points out the complexity of perspective, especially during a war as convoluted as Vietnam. It is certain that there are and were many who believed wholeheartedly in Mederos’ image of Uncle Ho sitting serenely in the forest just as others wholeheartedly did not.

In his lectures about the difficulty of navigating and understanding modern news media, Alain de Botton draws attention to the relationship – or lack of it – between news and art: ‘Information needs to enter our imagination’ in order for it to be useful, he says. *3 He contrasts the sterile and decontextualized news reel with effective pieces of photojournalism: Pieces in which the image advances our understanding by showing us something we didn’t know before, or by challenging us to reconsider any straightforward narrative – especially those concerning war and conflict:

What was he shooting at before that soldier picked up two Vietnamese infants?

What did the soldier in the second photo think of the war before he left home?

What is written in the eyes of the soldier? What is written in the eyes of the child?

Richard Alan also points out that “persuasion serves a public interest when it assists social utility” *4. This is along similar lines as a point that Alain de Botton makes in his aforementioned speech about the impact of modern news media: that bias in the news can serve a purpose when it is directed at exposing injustice. Since bias is something that cannot be removed it should be used as it is in effective photojournalism, rather than as it is in propaganda. This is the ideal, at least.

References: 

*1. Mederos, René, Vietnamese Revolution Art [images], (1969-71) < http://dangerousminds.net/comments/rene_mederos&gt;, accessed 17/05/15.

*2. Chu Van, ‘The Moon Remembers Uncle Ho’, in Norton, Barley, Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam (USA: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 36.

*3. De Botton, Alain, The News: A User’s Manual [online video], (Talks at Google, 13/03/14) < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4aAJrJB6h0> accessed 15/05/15.

*4. Alan, Richard, ‘Issues Communication and Advocacy: Contemporary Ethical Challenges’, Public Relations Review, vol. 20, no. 3 (1994), p. 225.

*5.

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1 thought on “War photography and propaganda”

  1. This is a brilliantly written and structured piece. War is something that is paradoxically, so very easy to simplify for people who do not do the research behind the source of conflict, behind the imbalances in power or resources. This piece demonstrates well that influential drawings are powerful tools for those who do not conduct thorough research into their views. It is worthy to note a lot of propaganda was specifically designed for illiterate people, to target their feelings and not what they could not understand. A well written piece, always a brilliant read here 🙂 x

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