Notes on a Photographic Message
Omar Khan, Electronic Iraq
21 January 2005
Thursday, January 13, 2005: a photo colors the upper left corner of the front page of the New York Times. The photo's apparent subject is a second image embedded within it. This second image is also a photograph. It is of a man's hand, which appears from the right edge, holding a miniature red, white, and black striped likeness of the Iraqi flag. The Arabic writing above the hand ("In order to give our children a better country") provides context: the blue backdrop of what now appears to be poster is the curtain of a voting booth, inside of which the hand drops a ballot into a ballot box. A vote is cast.
Yet the image, although a photo, is hardly what Susan Sontag would have called a "mere image of truth." Its elements underscore its artificiality. That is to say, the photo contains elements that indicate it to be other than a reproduction of what is simply there for the eye to see. Such elements amply reveal "what is simply there" to be what is staged. The camera-friendly lighting is unmistakable—and so overpowering that it whitens the hand, whose fingertips are elegantly posed and perfectly centered for photographing. If the fingers are followed all the way to the wrist, what we see is a white cuff beneath a dark sleeve, an indication that this voter wears a business suit—denying, it would seem, to 70% of the Iraqis viewers of this poster the unemployment that has befallen them. At the bottom of the poster, the Iraqi flag (with its badly airbrushed shine) is a stamp of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The blue curtain of the voting booth is the backdrop of a portrait studio.
None of this is lost on the New York Times. This image, remember, is an image within an image. The larger photo in which it appears has a caption, which calls attention to the photographic message: "Posters on the walls of Baghdad promote the idea that voting is good for Iraq, represented by its flag." The caption in effect articulates the kernel of propaganda around which form is organized in the poster. In the photo to which this caption corresponds, this is not only brought to light but is done so repeatedly: the individual poster appears in a sequence without end. This photo-poster, as it appears in the larger photo of the New York Times, recalls what Theodor Adorno calls the "assembly-line character of the culture industry."
The concept of technique in the culture industry is only in name identical with technique in works of art. In the latter, technique is concerned with the internal organization of the object itself, with its inner logic. In contrast, the technique of the culture industry is, from the beginning, one of distribution and mechanical reproduction, and therefore always remains external to its object. The culture industry finds ideological support precisely in so far
as it carefully shields itself from the full potential of the techniques contained in its products. It lives parasitically from
the extra-artistic technique of the material production of goods, without regard for the obligation to the internal artistic whole implied by its functionality, but also without concern for the laws of form demanded by aesthetic autonomy.1
The poster, like any product of the culture industry, finds both its aesthetic and its dissemination in the same founding principle: mechanical reproduction. Reconsider its contents: they are dressed, organized, and lit to be photographed; the Arabic letters and CPA stamp are typeset, centered. These characteristics allow the image to be circulated as mechanically as it was created; and, as shown by the New York Times, printed and distributed on masse. What about the bankruptcy of the business suit? This, too, is demonstrated: in the appended article,2 the image of a rich Iraqi voter is quietly dispatched with a phrase ("$200 a month, an excellent wage here"). But the article, in this respect and others, is indeed an appendage: it is only an afterthought to what is already conveyed by the photo.
In search of a form
What can be said for the form of the photograph on the front page of the New York Times? First, to repeat, it presents an object within (the CPA photo-poster) bearing all the marks of mass-produced propaganda.
These markings, as already discussed, are internal to the photo-poster itself; but they become palpable in union with the larger photo to which it is juxtaposed. Yes, the photo in the New York Times shares a compositional similarity with the photo-poster represented within it: a hand coming from the right border. The hand of the election worker touches (in fact overlaps with) the hand of the voter. But this likeness only accents the difference between the two photos, so unlike in every other respect. Contrast the Iraqi election worker's hands (along the right edge, partly obscured, brown) with the hand in the poster (centered, posed, white); the natural light of day with the artificial lighting of the poster; and the tanned, pockmarked wall with the sheen of the ballot box and the silken, blue backdrop of a portrait studio. Is the photo in the New York Times, like the one it contains, also a self-evident product of the culture industry—in which technique has its basis in only "distribution and mechanical reproduction"? No: the photo, by showing the photo-poster within it, in fact exposes a product of the culture industry for what it is—nothing more than a piece of propaganda. This is achieved by showing the photo-poster to contrast so utterly with its surroundings, all the way down to the vertical crack on the wall that it tries to cover. Showing all of this, the photo in the New York Times appears as no mere product of the culture industry—whose mechanical distribution and reproduction in the case of the photo-poster it represents, exposes, and thereby opposes. In this way, it seems to less in common with a product of the culture industry than with Adorno's description of a work of art: "it is defined by relation to what it is not...It exists only in relation to its other." 3 To quote from the passage already cited, in art "technique is concerned with the internal organization of the object" and not merely its "distribution and mechanical reproduction"; this very much the case here, where an overlap of hands provides not so much a point of similarity as the basis for a total contrast between the internal organization of two photographs.
So what can we say of the "internal organization" or inner tension in the photograph from the New York Times? We have a piece of mass-produced, CPA propaganda and an Iraqi who plasters it, repeatedly, to a wall. He places his right hand over that of the wealthy Iraqi voter, and sees through the propaganda he posters as surely as he sees his own hand. The photograph puts the meaning of the photo-poster—and the CPA and the US occupation that created it—on trial. The photo-poster seems little more than a charade, and one imposed from above at that. The obvious implication is that the same may be true of the elections. But we are not alone to worry about such things.4 The Iraqi man is with us. And he continues along—"resolute," the second caption5 tells us, in case the motion of his hand is somehow mistaken for a caress. Some meaning is restored to the poster (and, by implication, all that has created it) by an Iraqi. If the poster shows but a dream, then it is an Iraqi dream. It may be mass-produced, but it is Iraqi produced. It is in the name of Iraqi resoluteness, self-respect—indeed self-determination—that propaganda and occupation find some meaning.
This meaning is not imposed; it emerges. While the propaganda of photo-poster arrives as state truth, announcing its mass-production (why else gloss?), what we have in the New York Times is only a single, although unmistakable impression. Rather than pose in the artificial light of objective truth, the camera instead scrutinizes it from the shade of human experience. To reiterate: meaning in the photograph takes shape in (and is transmitted by) subjective experience -having a largely hidden subject and arbitrary view (with its untidy borders)- stamped by the shadow of the cameraman in the bottom-right corner. Far from being any sort of limitation, subjectivity is in fact an organizing principle, a basis of meaning. The photograph confronts mere propaganda, and does so with the richness of human expression -of both the election worker and the photographer himself. Neither has forgotten the suffering in which form here has its substance. The singularity of state truth is thereby opposed by a vision whose only limitation is that of the human eye (and the eye of the camera). This eye prefers the unstinting and unfettered, rather than to indulge in the playing children, economic aid, surprised citizens, and other signs of a thriving reconstruction captured by an army of photographers6 at the same time, only meters away.
Last Thursday's front page of the New York Times, like those that follow it, indeed "allow[s] the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across," as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman write in the introduction to their propaganda model.7 But such a message comes by way of a medium in which it is enclosed—that is to say condensed, reduced, and thereby demeaned. The news is not propaganda; rather, propaganda is within the news. What, after all, is the origin of the news article? It is the event, yes, but it is also individual, human observation. The individual, if a "replaceable piece,"8 is also an essential one. For far from an alleged "cult of objectivity," in news we have a cult of the subjective, of the individual—in whose expression meaning finds its form.9 By observing trends in coverage such as through "dichotomized choices of story," we excerpt the news event from the context in which it appears, the news story, and so from the context that gives it force.10 The inner form of the news story is, remember, the story—which, like every story, contains within it an equally compelling (and daily observable) dichotomy of choice in which propaganda appears but a mere thing. Chomsky and Herman in Manufacturing Consent go to exhaustive lengths to uncover the "secret of the unidirectionality of the politics of media propaganda." To last Thursday's readers of the New York Times, however, propaganda had no secret—it was simply there to see. Perhaps the only secret in news left to tell, then, is the secret of the story—the triumph of individual expression over mere propaganda.
(1) "Culture Industry Reconsidered," The Culture Industry, Theodor Adorno, translated by Anson G. Rabinbach, p. 101.
(2) "Under Fire, Election Workers in Iraq Scared but Resolute," New York Times, Christine Hauser, January 13, 2005.
(3) Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno, 1970, p. 3.
(4) Indeed, the photo would take on a totally different meaning without the Iraqi.
(5) The title of the article ("Under Fire, Election Workers in Iraq Scared but Resolute") doubles as a second
caption (in the print edition, it actually falls directly below the photo).
(6) Dahr Jamail.
(7) Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, 1988.
(8) "Bewildering the Herd," The Humanist, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Rick Szykowny (on September 7, 1990), November/December 1990; see also Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky.
(9) The expression of the individual—of the citizen (sometimes the statesman) in the news and of the person who authors it. The absence of the first-person pronoun is meant to show that the subject of this expression is not the individual himself (or herself).
(10) The quote is from Manufacturing Consent. I'm not sure that comparisons on the "micro" (article by article) level any more successfully engage the experience of reading (or viewing) an individual piece of news.
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