Posted by: benshelor | November 19, 2008

Photography and Propaganda

The photograph above (from the website of one of the nation’s most important and influential newspapers, the Washington Post) shows a young African boy in a Congolese refugee camp taking food donated from the United States to help those fleeing violence in the region. The photograph shows an event that takes place everyday not only in the Congo, but across the continent of Africa and many places across the world that are dependent on foreign aid to feed their people. It is an unfortunate fact of life in an increasingly modernized West that the rest of the world struggles on a daily basis for such necessities as food and shelter.

While the photo is certainly impactful to the viewer for its visual content and the message of poverty and necessity that it sends, it also contains some subtle messages that make the picture an agent of persuasion, and to some extent, propaganda. More important to the underlying message of the photograph than the child in the foreground is the flag and wording that is clearly visible on the bags of food in the background. The flag of the United States and the words “Split Yellow Peas” and “U.S. AID” displayed on the bags give the message to the viewer that the United States is helping the situation. The stacks of bags in the background add to the message by showing that vast amounts of food are being sent across the world to help the victims of famine and violence.

British author E.M. Cornford said of propaganda that it is “very nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies.” Such a description is relatively accurate in a case such as the one in the photograph above. The picture is intended to spread the message both domestically and abroad and is as much a message from the government of the United States to the people of the U.S. as a message to foreign nations of the contributions of the United States. A closer examination (or one by someone who is more knowledgeable about the situation faced by refuges in Africa) of the photograph revels that almost everything in the frame comes from the U.S. or some other Western nation that has donated supplies to refugees. The clothing, shoes, even the plastic bag the boy is carrying are products of the West and were given by some kind of aid. While the image is designed to show the contribution of the U. S. and international aid networks to the situation in Africa, it is as much a show of what has already been done to the people of the very nations that send the supplies. The photograph is a prime example of the use of an unfortunate and sometimes deadly situation used to spread the political and ideological message of a government to its people.

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