Subtleties of contemporary propaganda

Impressed with Leni Riefenstahl’s romantic films, Adolph Hitler recruited her to document the 1933 congress of the Nazi party. After making that first party film, Riefenstahl complained to Hitler that she had not been allowed sufficient creative control. In 1934, she was given wider latitude. She employed several camera crews for various angles; she constructed tracks for dynamic panning shots; she built mechanical camera elevators. The film she created is a masterpiece of propaganda, entitled Triumph of the Will.

Decades later, Riefenstahl insisted in interviews that Triumph of the Will was a documentary, not a propaganda film. The distinction, she explained, was that her film had no narrator commenting on the scenes, telling the viewer what to think. This is a clever but unconvincing defense. The film has no narration because it needs none—its propagandistic message is made so clear through visual cues that any voiceover would be redundant.

With her background as a silent film actress, Riefenstahl knew how to construct a narrative without language. Close, low angles portray Hitler as a heroic, towering figure. Hitler’s close-ups are intercut with wide-angle shots of thousands of Germans in parade formation, saluting in unison. The viewer is compelled to perceive Hitler as a great leader, the singular personality behind whom all of Germany was uniting in irresistible solidarity. Today, when we think of the frightening conformity of German society under Hitler, the images that come most readily to mind are these, staged and manufactured with great skill by Leni Riefenstahl.



In Triumph, Riefenstahl emphasizes those aspects of the Nazi party that are most seductive. The film does not acknowledge that the Nazis had already burned books, persecuted minorities and assassinated political rivals. This is one of the most consistent characteristics of propaganda, the lie of omission.

It is a mistake to equate all propaganda with false information. Contemporary propagandists know that most audiences have access to information, and that bald lies will be easily recognized and resented. The contemporary propagandist therefore presents what seems an unimpeachable message, emphasizing only those facts that advance his agenda, while carefully omitting any other information. Statistics and studies are cited, experts quoted.

In the film Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, director Robert Greenwald outlines several propagandistic strategies used by contemporary news agencies to distort information for idealistic reasons. In the medium of television, where hour-long speeches are reduced to five-second clips, it is easy to misrepresent political news through the careful selection of sound bites.

The still photograph is not immune to manipulation for propagandistic purposes. Photoshop has been used (with various degrees of skill) to alter news images. Iran released these manipulated photos of a missile test launch. Fox News responded to an article by New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg by airing distorted, unflattering headshots of him on the morning program Fox and Friends.


But the biggest recent controversy over a still image in political news coverage concerns this 2008 Newsweek cover, featuring vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The photo is taken at close range with a telephoto lens. The photo has not been retouched much (if at all) in Photoshop. The image is of sufficient size and resolution to reveal the tiny blemishes on the Alaska Governor’s skin; her wrinkles, the tiny hairs around her mouth, her slightly yellowed teeth, and her heavy makeup are all rendered sharply.

Palin’s fans were livid about this magazine cover. They believed it was designed to make their candidate unattractive.

It was.

The main source of light for this portrait (likely a medium-sized softbox) comes from the right and slightly above. Strong side lighting emphasizes textures and contours, and certainly the photographer who took this shot would know that more uniform lighting (especially front lighting) would be more flattering, especially at this near-macro range. For cosmetics advertisements, when models are photographed in similar proximity, photographers often use a ring light, or several large softboxes to create soft, diffuse light that diminishes the appearance of blemishes and wrinkles.  The Newsweek photographer did Sarah Palin no such small favor.

The ethical considerations of retouching a photograph in Adobe Photoshop (the industry standard software application) are surprisingly complex. The rule for most photojournalists is simple: don’t use software to manipulate the content of a photograph, period. The reasoning behind this practice is clear—newsworthy events should be recorded objectively, and not revised post-facto. But cover photos like this one are portraits, not reportage. The same ethical standards shouldn’t be applied. This photo shoot was scheduled; Sarah Palin’s makeup, hair, and wardrobe were chosen with consideration for this photograph. She was told where to stand and how to pose relative to the camera and the light. This was not an objective shot, captured as events were unfolding, but rather a collaboration between subject and photographer, in which the photographer acted in bad faith.

The unflattering treatment of Governor Palin is even more evident when compared to other Newsweek cover photos. An image of economist Paul Krugman was taken at nearly the same magnification, but with better lighting and almost certainly some use of the clone stamp and healing brush tools in Adobe Photoshop to hide blemishes. Then candidate Barack Obama appeared on a 2008 Newsweek cover washed in lens flare. His head partially eclipses the sun, forming a halo. The photo was not manipulated, but it was selected from many other usable photographs.



2 Responses to “Subtleties of contemporary propaganda”

  1. October 4, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Excellent observation! Hitler used melodramatic and very theatrical trappings to emphasise power that seemed overwhelming to anyone questioning his strength. The towering banners lit up at night, and the deafening sound of people yelling “Sieg heil!”. The other side are the “documenteries” of Michael Moore. He is building a great fortune by pretending to be just a regular guy. He pretends he is innocently asking for justice for all of us. It would be interesting to have someone document his lavish lifestyle, and lack of social action to help the causes he does in film.

    • 2 mattvalentinephotography
      October 4, 2009 at 8:19 pm

      Thanks for your comments. Certainly Michael Moore employs propagandistic techniques in his films, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that Moore and Riefenstahl are opposite sides of the same coin. It’s always problematic to use 1930s Germany as a point of comparison for contemporary society. Indeed, I had some hesitation about discussing Riefenstahl and contemporary political propaganda in the same blog post, since I didn’t want to create a false equivalency. Contemporary propagandists may be greedy or petty or even hateful, but they don’t begin to approach the obscene moral depravity of the Nazis.

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