Liberia, July 20, 2003. A dreadlocked soldier leaps into the air. He has his rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his back. His battle cry roars into the melee of sounds and twists his face into this face that has often gone unseen: The face of a soldier enjoying war. Chris Hondros took this photo. He caught the soldier’s rejoicing in this picture and it was broadcast and printed all over the world; it was a photo of exhilaration that became the face of Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war.
But what side was that soldier on? What was he fighting for? His motivations aren’t in the photograph. They can’t be seen in the dust and sunlight and low, graffitied buildings and crumbling bridge. All that can be seen in Hondros’s photograph is a man who loves war. That is the truth of this picture.
The soldier’s name is Joseph Duo. He was a child soldier when he enlisted in President Charles Taylor’s army to fight against the rebellion. “I was happy at that time because I was defending my country,” he said, through an interpreter, to Smithsonian Magazine.1 But that deeper cause of his happiness cannot be seen in the photo. Hondros himself noted his picture’s ambiguities: “Does it celebrate war or is it, you know, something else?”2 It has often been noted that different captions can change how a photograph is viewed. And it has been noted, more often, that a photo is assumed to be true. Between these two facts lies the power of political photography: The photographs are true, but that truth can be used to achieve different ends.
Photography is uniquely fluid when compared to other visual arts. Duo is in that photograph and he’s thrilled with his work. These facts cannot be denied. But headline that photo with “WAR CRIMINAL’S CHILD SOLDIER FIRES ON REBELS,” and the picture’s meaning becomes very different than it would be underneath the caption “REBELS REJOICE IN FALL OF DICTATORSHIP.”
For over a century, photography has been a tool for swaying and holding public opinion. It has documented the twentieth century’s causes and ideologies, their impacts, and their atrocities. These photographs, and other examples of political photography, echo through history. They are pictures of half-truth, and they come from a space between fact and deceit. The power of a half-truth lies in its manipulation of reality. And that’s where political photography can become dangerous: in the ménage à trois between photography’s assumed truthfulness, the magic and invention of art, and the insidiousness of agendas.
A young man turns the wheel of a vast machine. He stands atop it, driving it through its work. The machine is much bigger than him. Even though he is the force behind it, as integral as any of the cogs or wires, the machine dwarfs him. That man is a part of the machine, just a frame in a much larger picture, like the cogs and wires. His name isn’t given. There is only the name of the organization he is a part of: Komsomol.
This image is Arkady Shaikhet’s Komsomol Member at the Wheel, Balakhna, 1929. It was exhibited as part of the exhibition Masterpieces of Soviet Photography at Atlas Gallery in London (November 1–27, 2018). There is both fact and fiction in this photograph, both truth and idealization. That man, or boy, was somewhere between fourteen and twenty-eight years old, as all members of the Komsomol were. He worked to be “a lively, active, healthy, disciplined youngster who subordinates himself to the collective and is prepared for and dedicated to learn, study, and work.”3 That was the ideal Komsomolet—the members of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, the Soviet Union’s youth organization. The Komsomol, as the organization was known, was used to propagate the government’s ideals in the young, to ensure that that wheel kept turning. Shaikhet was known for his “artistic reportage”4 and for his photos of industrialization in the late 1920s and ’30s. Komsomol Member at the Wheel, Balakhna, 1929 is a strong, powerful photograph, a mixture of art and engineering and facts. Here was a young man working for his beliefs, the ideology that he’d been fed since he was born. Soviet agitprop photography is made from this concoction of art (i.e., invention) and truth (i.e., reality). It is filled with grandiose images of weaponry, machinery, camaraderie, and work, all dwarfing the individuals in the frames. They work for a greater cause. Just as the art in Shaikhet’s photograph works to uphold the greater truth of Communism.
Joan Didion’s statement that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” encapsulates the idea of using invention to tell the truth. “We look for the sermon in the suicide,” she wrote in The White Album (1979), “for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see…”5 Truth is nothing more than reality. It is simply what is. How that reality is interpreted, however, how it is seen, read, understood, is what shapes the world and much of its art. Shaikhet’s photo looks up at its subject. It is not the full-on gaze of “truth.” Instead, the Komsomol member was photographed from an artistic angle. Shaikhet’s camera looked up at the man at the wheel, and so does anyone who looks at his photo. The truth of the image, the undeniable reality of that man working that machine, is captured from the idealized perspective of an artist preaching a message. The message his government made him preach.
Komsomol Member at the Wheel, Balakhna, 1929 takes the truth, refracts it through art, and makes a propagandist photograph. In a less dramatic photo, Boris Ignatovich captured the ideals that Joseph Stalin’s government wanted to press into the future. The handsome, bright couple of Youth, 1937 fills the picture with hope. They smile in the sunlight. They are fit and healthy, perfect, happy. A Brutalist tower stands over them in the background. It’s blurred, like a mirage or phantom. But its presence is there, hanging over their youth as they grow into the future.
Propaganda is taught as part of history. It’s mostly seen in the past tense, something that’s gone, and so has been stripped of the immediacy that was once its power. Youth, 1937 once was an attempt to say that communism is flourishing now. That its people are growing up content under those Brutalist towers. And that they will grow up into a contented future. Just as the towers would continue to grow out of the ground, and the artists would continue to look up at the workers.
That is photography using art as propaganda, manipulating the truth to further a political cause. But the undying idea of art as subversion can also be found in photography. The Vietnam War was called “the living room” war. It was the first to be televised, and the images were immediate and brutal: Tim Page’s War Zone ‘C’—Ambush of the 173rd Airborne (1965), Art Greenspon’s platoon sergeant seemingly pleading with the heavens in Help From Above (1968), Huỳnh Công Út’s The Terror of War (1972). The photographs came thick and fast, shells of truth firing out of the TV and newspaper.
From 1967 to 1972, Martha Rosler was making her photomontage series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. She spliced photos of amputees and soldiers and destruction with pictures of suburban homes, charging the war’s faraway horrors with a bedroom’s intimacy. In one image from the series, Balloons, a Vietnamese woman holds her child. The child is limp, half-naked. The woman looks, wide-eyed, at the clean, modern hallway behind her (which looks like a home magazine’s ad) as if it is the sharp angles and pristine walls that terrify her. The mother and child look as if they are sinking into the floor, like the home is swallowing them. They take up very little space in the home. But they are undoubtedly the focus of the picture. Even the lines of the architecture move into them, leading the eye to this small picture of foreign suffering.
A nation’s enemies are always alien. They represent forces, military and ideological, that threaten that nation’s way of life. Vietnam became the Other when fighting began between Ho Chi Minh’s communist government in North Vietnam and Ngo Dinh Diem’s anti-communist government in the United States-backed South Vietnam. Communism’s atom bombs and ideology were seen as threats to America’s new post–World War II power. And North Vietnam, an ally of the USSR, was pushing into America’s territory—but only because Diem was torturing and executing any Minh supporters he found in his country, using technology and techniques acquired from the CIA. From then, North Vietnam was alien and threatening, a danger to American homes and the values they stood for.
Balloons is a picture of the connection between the Vietnam War and American suburbia’s stability. Alien enemies give people a cause to unite under—the protection of their values and homes—and something to hate: foreign people and ideas. American homes were being “protected” and reinforced as Vietnam’s were being bombed. Suburbia was free to go about its day with those images of napalmed children on the TV and in the paper. And so a connection between the war and America’s stability was forged. So long as the war went on, the American Dream was standing up for itself. Yet, on the other hand, as long as there was a war to fight, the dream would never truly be safe. In Balloons, a Vietnamese family, the people suffering for America’s security, is at the center of this picture of American normality. They stand at the point where all the lines and angles converge. But they’re a small part of that normality, a suffering that many families don’t see, a pain that looks as if it is sinking into the foundations.
Another image from the series, Beauty Rest, emphasizes the security a nation feels when it is surrounded by Otherness. The “chaos” across the border makes the “order” at home seem perfect, utopian, safe. Over there, the people are violent and uncivilized. Here, we are cultured and comfortable.
A white family lies on a king-sized bed. The strong-jawed father plays with his son. The blonde, white-clad mother is reading. They lounge in the middle of a blown-out apartment, comfortable amid the broken glass and shattered supports and stark walls bathed in cold, gray sunlight. Their world is untouched. The world around them is falling apart.
Balloons’s family is the product of the home. And Beauty Rest’s family is secure in their knowledge of the Other’s existence. The House Beautiful series as a whole shows how America’s normality was a product of its government’s war. Vietnam was fought in the name of America’s security. But while the US ultimately lost its fight there, for nineteen years America could sleep knowing that the fight went on. That it was safe at home.
Both Rosler and Shaikhet used fiction to tell a truth. Shaikhet used photography’s trueness to maintain the government’s power. He romanticized it through artfulness, using creativity to put weight and strength behind his pictures’ punches. Rosler stitched opposite truths together to reveal the connection between them—the link between Vietnam’s pain and America’s comfort, and between the benefits to the powerful that come from the suffering of the powerless. Where her art sought to highlight the wrongs of America’s system, Shaikhet’s was trying to reinforce the Soviet Union’s rightness.
The difference: Rosler’s pictures tell the truth, Shaikhet’s photographs use the truth. But if both combine truth and lies, is there really a difference? Yes, there is, and it is this: Balloons and Beauty Rest are undoubtedly fictions. Their invention isn’t secret. Komsomol Member at the Wheel, Balakhna, 1929, however, poses as a real truth, as fact. Was that young man actually at that wheel? Yes. Does the photograph’s artful angle put his work, and the Komsomol, far above the viewer, where it cannot be reached by detractors and criticism? Yes. Rosler’s pictures are affectation as truth. Shaikhet’s photo is truth as affectation. It’s a picture of doublespeak, an attempt to conceal the facts of communism (dehumanization through bureaucracy and police brutality, gulags and exiles and imprisonments, and the spurning of basic human rights) underneath art’s prettiness. This was the goal of socialist realism, the USSR’s “formally realistic, thematically artificial” art movement that came to power with Stalin. The photographs (and also sculptures, paintings, films, and literature) produced under its influence were agitprop masquerading as art. Imprisonment and death awaited the artists who criticized Stalin and his reign or the everyday reality of its crimes. What’s seen in socialist realism is not the truth. Instead there is the exploitation of beauty to conceal reality.
That’s what censorship is: the concealment of the truth for an ulterior motive. Socialist realism’s photography, even though its subjects were undoubtedly “true,” was an attempt to mask reality. But censorship has been a more violent, obvious process in totalitarian governments. In Nazi Germany, sometime in the mid-1930s, unsold copies of the first photo-book by August Sander, Face of Our Time (1929), were rounded up and burned, along with their negatives. Sander had been working on an image archive of the German people, which became Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century), in which he photographed people who did not fit Nazism’s Aryan archetype. His photos are full on, looking straight at the people, at the lines their lives had carved onto their faces and the coal dust on their hands. There is no artistry here. Nothing has been invented. Nothing appeals to the imagination. Nothing is hidden. Sander wanted neither to “criticise [nor] describe these people.”6 His goal was only to record the truth.
Sander’s approach has been described as “scientific.” He collected facts in an attempt to further understand the German people. He was methodical, planned his pictures carefully, moved portraiture out of the studio and into the world his subjects belonged to and that belonged to them. Through Face of Our Time’s seven categories—“the farmers; the skilled tradesmen; women; classes and professions; the artists; the city; and the last people (the homeless)”—he presented an egalitarian, honest view of German society in the twentieth century. Sander’s honesty got him persecuted. He told a truth that did not conform, and Nazism tried to have it destroyed.
Censorship is the concealment of the truth, and the Nazis’ ulterior motive was to prevent Sander’s honesty sparking and reinforcing ideas that threatened them. What then is the ulterior motive behind censoring art? Why hide truths made of inventions? Simply because fictions have helped mankind make sense of the world since our imaginations caught up with evolution. Mythologies have enshrined cultures’ values and beliefs. Their stories became poems, paintings, and sculptures, which then became novels and movies. For a very long time, art put forms to a shapeless world. And that is also what governments set out to do: to put a shape to the world. When a government is as strict, conformist, and authoritarian as a dictatorship, art that challenges its power, that frames the world from an “undesirable” angle, is censored to stop truths that might destabilize its authority. Nazism’s censoring and destruction of “degenerate art” is well known. And I have already mentioned the punishments dealt out to the Soviet Union’s nonconformist artists. But what about democratic countries, in which freedom of speech is constitutionally protected, and is considered one of the defining characteristics of democracy?
Robert Mapplethorpe was tangled in controversies throughout the last half of the 1980s and into the ’90s. In 1986, Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book was published. His photographs of nude Black males posed questions about the fetishization, objectification, and portrayal of Black people. In 1988, his exhibition The Perfect Moment7 asked questions about censorship, arts funding, obscenity, and pornography through its pictures of gay BDSM and the infamous bullwhip self-portrait. And in 1998, the University of Central England was threatened with legal action when the police got hold of two pictures from the book Mapplethorpe (1992), which was available in the university’s library.
I repeat: censorship is the concealing of the truth for ulterior motives. Many people recognized the power of The Perfect Moment and called for it to be removed, so that these images of alternative sexuality wouldn’t contaminate American consciousness. The anger came both from groups of citizens and from politicians. Senator Jesse Helms, known for his hatred of the LGBTQ+ community, tried to bring in legislation that prevented the National Endowment for the Arts from funding work he considered “obscene,” in reaction to Mapplethorpe’s exhibition and works by Andres Serrano. Mapplethorpe’s photographs did not fit into Helms’s American society, the same society examined in Rosler’s work, and so they shouldn’t be seen at all.
The pictures were called exploitative. Essex Hempbill, the openly gay poet and activist, believed Mapplethorpe’s photographs showed that Black people weren’t considered in the gay community “except as sex objects.”8 Looking at the phallocentrism of the pictures, at the emphasis on muscles and size, Hempbill’s point becomes very convincing. It needs to be noted that Hempbill acknowledged the talent evident in these pictures. But despite that talent, he ultimately came to the above conclusion. The question still remains: What do we do with pictures like this? How should we look at them?
It is as easy and as difficult as this: the information within them should be acknowledged for what it is, and then the next choice can be made. Contained in all of these Mapplethorpe photographs is worthwhile information. The Perfect Moment’s pictures show a real, true side of human sexuality. And The Black Book’s photographs, whether or not this was Mapplethorpe’s intention, show a truth of how Black individuals are often seen: as objects, to be treated as such. Both of these insights are worthwhile simply because they are true. When the truth is acknowledged, and not a moment before, wise choices become possible.
Both of these examples tackle deeply personal, intimate questions. In the case of Mapplethorpe’s homosexual and BDSM photographs, a politician tried to suppress a truth of sex; by campaigning for legislation that would prevent the images being produced and seen, Helms’s politics were attempting to intrude on civilians’ private lives. In the case of The Black Book photographs, we see how that outside world has already intruded on Americans’ personal lives. The first is an attempt to keep truth from impacting everyday reality. And the second is a glimpse into how this is done: by dehumanizing people, through depriving them of the skills required to make informed choices so they cannot partake in that reality. When you can’t make informed choices, you can’t make informed changes.
No matter how harmful, or even “obscene,” the image, once acknowledged for what it actually is—honest or manipulated, beneficial or harmful—it’s brought down to earth, instead of towering over us as something insurmountable or sacred. The image (although there are exceptions, such as rape- and child-pornography) is not the problem. Rather, the issue lies in the cultures that create such images (the Vietnam War photos, Soviet photography, The Black Book) or in our reactions to uncomfortable truths (The Perfect Moment, Face Of Our Time).
Governments have the responsibility to tell the truth.
People have the responsibility to acknowledge the truth, where they are within it—their thoughts, motivations, and actions—and then react with consideration and compassion.
Christine Dell’Amore, “A Soldier’s Story,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2006, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-soldiers-story-109690958.
Dell’Amore, “A Soldier’s Story.”
Matthias Neumann, “Revolutionizing Mind and Soul? Soviet Youth and Cultural Campaigns during the New Economic Policy (1921–8),” Social History 33, no. 3 (August 2008): 248.
Grigory Shudakov, Pioneers of Soviet Photography (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983), 20.
Joan Didion, The White Album (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).
Ben Luke, “August Sander review: German portraits the Nazis were so desperate to suppress,” Evening Standard, May 23, 2018, www.standard.co.uk/culture/august-sander-review-german-portraits-the-nazis-were-so-desperate-to-suppress-a3846421.html.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment opened and was on view from December 9, 1988 to January 29, 1989 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, before traveling to other museums throughout the US where it became central to the debate over censorship and government funding of the arts.
Martin Duberman, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS (New York: The New Press, 2014), 169–70.