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Don’t Blink: Faces And Humanity In Propaganda And Persuasion
Propaganda is among the most powerfully persuasive uses of imagery in
human society. It must be; Orson Welles did it!
Propaganda refers to using media to persuade people to take up a
specific cause or ideology; it is often associated with political
ideologies, but persuasive media can also be used to call people to
enact social change. One of the most effective forms of spreading the
ideology is to humanize the subject. In doing this, the commonalities
between the subject—whether it’s a political tyrant or a family in
need—and the audience are brought in focus.
For example, in his film “Citizen Kane,” director Orson Welles created
a propaganda giant in the persona of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper
mogul turned gubernatorial hopeful whose knowledge of and experience
with media gives him an apparent edge over his competition.
In this image, the propaganda is twofold. The poster in the
background, within the context of the film, is part of Kane’s campaign
for governor. The poster is meant to present Kane as a larger than
life figure, but also a human one, a superman who appeals to the
everyman: Kane’s face is both massive and genial, and the Art Deco
block lettering is imposing and minimalistic.
However, outside of the context of the film, Welles set the shot
itself up as a kind of propaganda piece. The poster fills the frame
and dwarfs the people huddled in front of it. Welles himself is the
central figure beneath it, his arms outstretched in an act of
proclamation. In short, the audience watching the movie is given the
same psychological treatment as the audience in the movie watching
This is a mixing of man and superman qualities is a tactic that is
used repeatedly in persuasive media.
In “1984,” author George Orwell’s masterpiece of pessimistic political
satire, posters of authority Big Brother dot the dystopian English
landscape. His person is almost reduced to piercing eyes that
unblinkingly watch the populace. Their cold, hard gaze is contrasted
by his soft, not-unkind expression. Big Brother is an unflappable
watchdog, but with an oddly sympathetic side. The implication that he
is a concerned father figure, not a harsh police warden.
These cinematic examples are not without real world counterparts. This
image of Stalin shows the former potentate of the USSR with a gentle
but firm gaze surrounded by Soviet youths who are either overjoyed to
be in his presence (the blond girl in the back) or in quiet,
respectful awe (the two brunettes in the foreground). Like the shot
from “Kane,” Stalin’s image takes center stage through sheer size.
And, like the image of Big Brother, Stalin’s expression suggests a
power greater than your own, but not without concern and sympathy.
But humanizing the subject is not simply good for selling a political
figure; it is also a strategy for influencing social change.
Photographer Dorthea Lange is famous for her investigative documentary
style pictures of the harsh reality of America in the 1930s. Her
portrait “Waiting For Work” appears at first to be the exact opposite
of the poster of Stalin. The photograph shows a family hunkered in
front of an old jalopy; the father is a “professional migratory
laborer.” The image is stark black and white, showing off the dirty
details of downbeat Midwesterners facing the Dust Bowl. Stalin’s
picture sports a deep red background populated by happy, clean figures
to instill Soviet values.
Even though the implication is different, each image is meant to
attack us on a gut level by presenting us with the humanity of the
subject. The father in Lange’s “Waiting For Work” is every bit as
human and imposing as Stalin was in the propaganda poster. Lange’s
image is almost certainly the more noble cause: rather than showcasing
Stalin’s humanity while still reinforcing his place as an authority
figure, she is asking us to consider the humanity of a migrant family
struggling to get by.
Although we’ve been focusing on faces, the message of humanity can be
imparted to an audience by focusing any common body part. In
conclusion, consider this small sea of hands:
Here, as with Kane, Big Brother and Stalin, we see a single figure
given prominence over a larger group (in this case by placement in the
image: height in the frame—it is “over” the other hands—and it is
singularly pointing down on multiple hands that are similarly pointed
up). But unlike Kane, Big Brother and Stalin, this hand is not forcing
its will upon the others. It is handing out bread. That is the
difference between political propaganda and persuasion for social
justice. The commonality of humankind is presented to bring us
together instead of split us apart.