The Perversity of Propaganda

With the recent massacre largely aimed at young children in Houla, the war on the Syrian people reaches a new gruesome low. The images emerging out of Syria stand in stark contrast to the family friendly public profile the Assad regime attempted to promote in the past. As pointed out by the Washington Post, in November 2010 the regime acquired the services of the public relations firm Brown Lloyd James who were instrumental in setting up a gloating and ill-judged feature article on the Assad family published in Vogue magazine in March 2011. Ever since the onslaught on the Syrian people, this unashamed piece of propaganda vanished from the digital archives in the hope that it will be forgotten. A link to the Vogue article will lead to a page that reads: ‘Oops, the page you are looking for can not be found.’

Crucially, like all good propaganda, the article was accompanied by photographs. In line with the article, these photographs attempted to put the Assad family in a positive light. Brown Lloyd James were paid no less than $25,000 to set up a photo shoot with the great veteran war photographer James Nachtwey. Nachtwey’s eerily bland photographs of the Assad’s stand in stark contrast to his highly evocative images of the world’s most troubled hotspots. Rwanda, Serbia, New York on 9/11, Nachtwey was always there, and now he is photographing the Assad’s in their family home in Damascus.

UN observers examine bodies at a hospital morgue in the Syrian town of Houla before their burial, May 26 2012. (AFP/Shaam News Network)

In light of the massacre on the children of Houla, one image from the vanishing Vogue article stands out. It shows Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma playing with their two children in the living room. Gender roles are strictly assigned as Assad is playing with their son, while Asma is playing with the daughter. It looks like a happy family, an image further emphasized by a clean and nicely decorated living space, bright sunshine streaming through the windows and a number of toys. Far from the bodies of children lined up in the morgue of the Houla hospital, Nachtwey’s photograph seeks to portray a family at peace. It is no coincidence that it is Asma, not her husband, holding on to a large box of Lego – she was always thought to have embraced ‘Western-style’ democracy. It was thought that she could help to build a democratic and open country. As another of Nachtwey’s photographs in the article attempts to show, Asma was metaphorically looking after her people.

The Vogue photographs highlight an increasingly perverse dynamic between repressive regimes, public relation firms, media companies and global capital. Yet they also show the failure of capital to finance a short-sighted piece of propaganda that will blind no one to the atrocities on the people or Syria.

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3 thoughts on “The Perversity of Propaganda

  1. At the time of the photo shoot, a revolution in Syria was not occuring. A co-worker born and raised in Syria even travelled back there with his wife to visit friends and famuly and everything was business as usual.
    I really think you are grasping at straws here. A lego box is no coincidence? Are you kidding me?

    • Mike, I am glad to hear that your co-worker’s experience of pre-revolution Syria was that everything was normal. Where did he go? Did he go to Damascus, did he go to Homs, or did he go to a little village? What religion, if any, does he belong to? Is he an Alawite? Sunni? Christian? Druze? Does he have any political allegiances? Does he, or any of his family, work for the state? My point is that your statement that ‘everything was business as usual’ really depends on whom you are referring to. Syria didn’t just become a repressive regime over night. Human rights abuses and the violent crackdown on the opposition were escalating long before the beginning of the revolution. Have a look at Amnesty International reports on Syria if you are interested.

      As for the reading of the photograph, it is obvious that James Nachtwey was asked to portray Asma in a particular light. I am not suggesting that she was told to hold on to the Lego box, yet at the same time, the Lego box fulfils an important function in the image as it signifies a family-friendly atmosphere and an encounter with the West via one of it’s celebrated products. It’s hard to believe Bashar al-Assad would be hanging on to the Lego box. Instead, he appears to be engaged with his son playing with a car. The later activity is less focused on ‘building’, or ‘constructing’ than it is focussing on ‘driving’ or ‘racing’. These two significations stand in contrast to each other and are clearly emphasised in the photograph. Do you have an alternative reading? I am curious to know. For me, the photograph is highly propagandistic.

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