A discussion of the differences between a point of view, advocacy journalism and propaganda.

This appeared in News Photographer Magazine in July 2009.

By John Long

“We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace.”

– Walter Lippman

I watch a lot of television news, especially cable. I have also been known to listen to talk radio. Everyone has an opinion, everybody has a point of view, everybody has an agenda, and everyone has a spin. I don’t want to be spun any more. I want straight information. It all seems to be getting more and more shrill and I am getting tired of being yelled at. I long for the return of Edward R. Murrow.

The mind drifts: Thinking about spin led me to think about photographs and how this relates to photojournalism and I thought about a photography exhibit I saw some 10 years ago at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC, entitled “Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US.” (The show traveled to the International Center of Photography in New York City the following year). It was a fascinating comparison of documentary photographs made by the Farm Security Administration photographers and propaganda photographs made by Soviet photographers of the same generation. It was disturbing how similar the photographs looked. Many of the Soviet photographs could just as well have been FSA photographs. One man’s “document” is another man’s “propaganda.”

The word “propaganda” has not always had the pejorative meaning it has today. It was not until the 20th century that the negative connotation became popular. It is a word derived from Latin. The concept originally referred to the advocating of church doctrines; hence the term “propagation of the faith” still in use today. In the 20th century it came to mean lying for the purpose of advancing an agenda. There is currently an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, that describes this rise in the use of propaganda and the terrible results it had for the Jews in WWII. (The exhibit is called “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” and runs through December of 2011.)

There is no such thing as a totally objective photograph. All photographs are made by human beings who have points of view that are based on their life experiences. It is impossible to escape this fact. It is only possible to become aware of your own prejudices and try not to let them influence your work.

Having a point of view seems to me to be the starting point in photojournalism. The next level is documentary photojournalism followed by social documentary photography such as the FSA photographers practiced, or Lewis Hine or Jacob Riis, or (in the modern era) the Concerned Photography advocated by Cornell Capa and the ICP. This is the use of documentary photographs to bring about social awareness and change. This is advocacy journalism. (I need to thank Katherine Friedrich Van Acker of SUNY Albany, for helping me understand these distinctions).

“Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.”

– Adolf Hitler

When does concerned photojournalism become propaganda?

In many ways it comes down to a matter of perspective. Several months ago I wrote about “truth” and noted that I do not use the word when I discuss photojournalism. “Truth” is a loaded concept. It is tied to your life experiences and your value system. We are in the profession of providing accuracy to our readers, not truth.

“Truth” is what makes one photograph a document of reality and another a sordid piece of propaganda. If it fits my worldview it is a document. If it advocates someone else’s “truth” it is propaganda. It depends on where you are coming from. One man’s “fair and balanced” is another man’s pure bullshit.

But there is more. The real defining characteristic of propaganda is the ultimate value you are honoring. The ultimate value of propaganda is to promote a cause, good or bad, or to service an idea: details be damned, make any changes to the photograph you want, eliminate any detail, make the photograph say what you know in your heart is true, even if the camera does not record it, even if it is a visual lie. On the other hand, the ultimate value of documentary photojournalism is to show accurately the scene in front of your lens. Yes, it may show your point of view but real documentary photographers will never change the scene to match his or her purpose. The propagandist will lie or distort or change the content of the picture to bring about his or her intended result. The documentary photographer may have a purpose but the ultimate value is in the accuracy of the image.

Always, I must ask myself, “Am I blinded by my beliefs?”

It seems the dividing line would be willful distortion to bring about a desired end. Both the FSA shooters and the Russians probably thought they were seeking objective photos but both were conditioned by their environment and beliefs. We call one documentation” because it agrees with us and one “propaganda” because it is coming from the philosophical “other” or the enemy.

Today I fear for our news industry. Visual journalists must not get caught up in the whirlwind as opinion has become advocacy and advocacy has become propaganda. Visual journalists must never believe that they can modify their images to suit any purpose other than accuracy. And a little civility would be nice too.