Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Montage Or Mirage

The election photo-montage I posted last week has a certain propagandistic feel to it. It has all the usual suspects: the waving flag, the iconic soundtrack (Fanfare for the Common Man, hardly on the Iraqi Top 40) and the sequence of photos selected to tell a story ALL IN BOLD CAPITALS. It seemed especially propagandistic given the fact that the United States government admitted to paying off media in Iraq for positive reportage. I spoke recently with a New York Times writer, Jeff Gerth, who broke parts of that story, and I came away with the impression that the matter is broader and deeper than we know at this time. Clearly, there is no doubt—-our government has admitted to it—-we are spinning “propaganda.”

I did not mention the word “propaganda” when I published the election montage here, but left it to the perception of the reader, along with what I knew about who had made it—essentially, nothing. There were three overwhelmingly successful elections in Iraq in 2005, two of which I witnessed and reported first hand. I found the montage accurate in the limited sense that it implies a majority of Iraqis are struggling for self-determination. In that sense, I found it both accurate and moving. The scenes are nothing I haven’t photographed before, a point I made in the previous dispatch (Three Times a Charm.)

Ironically, if the montage is a work of propaganda, it’s an unfortunate waste of money, like framing a guilty man. There is no reason to gild this image. The truth of what happened during this third of three voting days in Iraq is undeniably powerful all on its own.

Today, I viewed another montage. MSNBC prepared a stunning photo of the year collection, and I found it to be "true" too, but its tone is overwhelmingly gloomy, scary, and makes the world look like it's all falling apart. There were hurricanes, riots, earthquakes, war, more riots, fires… It was all true. It all happened in 2005. Many of the photos are as technically incredible as they are horrific. The MSNBC montage is the work of top media professionals. The soundtrack is a powerful assist to communicating the dramatic theme or message of the piece, which, when the last photo is reached feels like “can you believe any of us made it out alive?”

It’s interesting to compare these two montages. The first from an un-attributed source, perhaps even a work of propaganda, shows people at their best, braving terrorists to vote in Iraq, then dipping their fingers in the purple ink, and smiling with pride, strength and hope.

The second montage by MSNBC, linked below, conveys the ultra-violence of nature against man, the cruelty of man against man, and helps explain why we want the world to be more like the impression we are left with after the “propaganda” montage. And yet, as someone who was out there experiencing some of what was depicted in both slide shows, it’s important to add that both are accurate in what they portray, while each is confined in scope. The difference is subtle, perhaps purely rhetorical. But the consequent impact, and how it influences public opinion, is something closer to cataclysmic.

Montage 1 (Propaganda?)

Montage 2 (MSNBC)