Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Posts Tagged ‘propaganda

Hilmar Pabel

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The year 1968 began uneasily in Czechoslovakia. The previous October, a group of students in Prague’s Technical University staged a demonstration to protest electricity cuts at their dormitories; their shouts of “More light!” were a pointed rebuke towards the stifling rule by the Communist party. So, when the new year came, the party yielded by electing a new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček.

The 47-year old was a compromise candidate — Dubček had carefully cultivated his bland and ambiguous personality for years. Now, finally with power, he changed positions. A reform program — timid by international standards, but ambitious in the eyes of Communist cadres — was launched to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The flowering of freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities followed, but it was brief. A worried Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

On the first day of invasion, German photographer Hilmar Pabel took the photo above of a distraught woman carrying a photo of Dubcek and Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda. Pabel was a man whose stature as a humanist photographer would have been greater had he not been a propagandist for Nazism during the Second World War. In a photoessay for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Pabel documented Jews living in the Lublin Ghetto as shifty and avaricious: living in dirt and hiding consumer goods and foods in the cellars.

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After the war, Pabel was briefly imprisoned for his work, but got out to work with Red Cross to photograph children displaced by war to help them reunite with their parents and family. By the 50s and 60s, his reputation has recovered, and his works were published by Life, Paris Match, and Stern.  In 1961, he was the recipient of the Cultural Prize of the German Society for Photography, followed by two World Press Photo awards. Two photoessays he filed from Vietnam (Story of the Little Orchid, 1964 and Thuan Lives Again, 1968) were widely praised, although some critics scoffed that he was reaching back into his propagandist past to portray American army hospital staff as Good Samaritans.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

The Photo of an Unknown War

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The blog likes to note there is often no truth in photography. What better photo to illustrate this point that this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart. 

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In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as the Dress Rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.

The photo, which does look like a poor Photoshop attempt, is often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa.

In that aspect, L’Humanité was closer to the truth (but perhaps accidentally). The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.

The photo first appeared fittingly in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 18, 2013 at 9:39 pm

The Good Soldier Lei Feng

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In 1962, an unheralded conscript was killed in Fushun, northeastern China. Lei Feng was just 20 when a banal accident — a falling telephone pole — ended his yet-undistinguished life. Officials later fortuitously uncovered his diary, allegedly filled with words of selfless devotion to the Communist Party. His ideal had been “to be a small cog in the machine,” working for the party and Chairman Mao. “Parents are dear to their children, but they can’t compare with Chairman Mao,” read one entry.

Mao needed all the propaganda skills he had to divert attention away from the Great Leap Forward, which was failing spectacularly; Lei Feng’s story was a godsend — as much as that word can be employed within Mao’s atheistic society.  ‘Lei Feng’ myth thus promptly began with a ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ campaign, initially focused on performing humble Communist deeds, but later also on following the cult of Mao. The biography of Lei Feng saw some strange variants before the definitive version was prepared by the writers of the Propaganda Department in 1964.

Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin praised Lei Feng as the personification of altruism. ‘Lei Feng Exhibitions’ were organized in the large cities, showing many different “original” copies of the hero’s diary. These exhibitions –and the official illustrated diary — also contained a remarkable number of photographs, such as “Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,” “Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrades’ washing,” “Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,” and so forth. Susan Sontag was frankly dismissive of the authenticity of these photos in her On Photography. Simon Leys was more sarcastic in his 1977 book Ombres Chinoises: “Only cynical and impious spirits will wonder at the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.”

After Mao’s death, Lei Feng briefly remained a cultural icon symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication, but his life became more openly questioned. A photograph later hilariously showed Lei wearing a wristwatch, an item of extravagance that was officially denied and practically unavailable to people of his rank*. Although many contemporary writers dismiss Lei’s continued importance, he remains one of modern China’s most resilient icons. Although his prominence in textbooks has declined, Lei Feng remains part of the national curriculum. He may now be subjected to open mockery, but there are still Lei Feng memorial, museum, and memorial day, and his life was also still celebrated in songs, T-shirts, kitsch internet animations and even a video-game even into 1990s and 2000s.

(cf. Wristwatches also made a rather unfortunate appearance in another series of iconic propaganda photographs made by an equally suffocating dictatorship.)

 

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 5, 2011 at 7:36 am

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