The Politics of Iconic Images

How iconic photos are often exploited or faked to support political agendas.

A photograph of crying two-year-old Yanela Sanchez became the iconic image of children being separated from their parents after crossing the border illegally. The photograph immediately went viral and was featured in international coverage around the world. Yanela Sanchez became the face of the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy. The cover of the July 2, 2018 edition of Time Magazine depicted a photoshopped image of Yanela looking up at President Trump, with the heading “Welcome to America.” The crying toddler was also pictured on the June 16 cover of The New York Daily News with the headline: “Callous. Soulless. Craven. Trump.”

The image, taken by photographer John Moore of Getty Images, was immediately bestowed iconic status and designated the visible symbol of family separation in the ongoing immigration debate. Iconic photographs function as symbols of historical events, controversies, persons or locations and sometimes they are representative of an entire generation. Protests and war are popular themes of iconic photos because they capture heroic, tragic and significant incidents.

The primary criteria of iconic photographs are their emotional effect. There was no shortage of images of crying children at the border. What distinguished this photograph from others is that it depicted Sandra Sanchez, Yanela’ s mother, being patted down by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. The image of a Border Patrol agent frisking a Honduran woman in front of her crying child was granted iconic status because it reinforces anti-police propaganda that portrays officers as inhumane, heartless, racist and violent. The image went viral because it evoked anti-police sentiment. Overt and subliminal messages work particularly well when they resonate with previously inculcated narratives. Continual negative media depictions of law enforcement have programmed public perception to interpret the image as a police officer terrorizing a child by harassing her mother.

Significantly, Iconic photos are influential. They influence public opinion, political policy and shape history. Hence, they are often exploited or faked to support political agendas. The photo of Sandra Sanchez and her daughter was definitively influential. The media exploited images of Yanela and other children to pressure President Trump into signing an executive order ending the process of separating children from families. Mission accomplished.

Visual propaganda uses images to influence perception, emotions, attitudes, opinions and actions. Many historical iconic images were the result of effective propaganda campaigns. However, there is always the possibility of blowback in psychological operations. When selecting an image to persuade public opinion it must be based in reality. Any inconsistency in the message and any gap between the product and reality will be noticed. A credible truth must be presented which is consistent to all audiences because of the nature of global media. The iconic image symbolizing family separation turned out to be based on a verifiable lie. Sandra Sanchez was never separated from her daughter. Border Patrol agent Carlos Ruiz told CBS News “that the mother and daughter were never separated and are still together.” Ironically the image is representative of family separation albeit voluntary. Sandra who had previously been deported from the United States to Honduras in July 2013 took her youngest child without telling her husband and left her three other children behind.

There appears to be little to no backlash of the truth being exposed. Time Magazine, which received a lot of criticism from news agencies, unapologetically characterized the crying girl on their cover as a symbol of this moment in America. Interestingly, iconic images do not have to be based on truth or facts. Several classic historical photographs have been staged for publicity, propaganda or hoaxes.  However, the image of Sanchez and her daughter does not meet one of the most important characteristics of iconic images, capturing an exact instant or moment in time that cannot possibly be repeated.  For example, the iconic 1972 photo of the naked nine-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam, the image of a man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks and the 1995 photo of a firefighter holding a baby that was rescued from the Alfred P. Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Photos of children crying while their parents are being searched occur every day in every city and at every border in the world. There is nothing unique about the crying child. Immigration rights organizations needed to put a face on their narrative and an iconic image was born. Sandra and Yanela were designated victims of an unjust policy being enforced by heartless border patrol agents. The anti-Trump, open borders, anti-police message was sent and received igniting protests across the country. Mission Accomplished.

‘Keep Families Together' rallies drew thousands of protesters across the nation. In an “Occupy ICE’ campaign protesters are camping outside of ICE facilities in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities blocking driveways and loading docks at detention centers. Nationwide demonstrations are being organized for June 30th and spontaneous protests are breaking out across the country. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was harassed and chased out of a D.C. restaurant by angry activists shouting “Shame!”, calling for the abolition of ICE and playing an audio clip of crying children.

While misleading images receive worldwide attention, photographs that do not fit the political agenda are suppressed. For example, images of police who are victims of violence are rarely published and frequently mischaracterized.  A horrifying photo of a French Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité anti-riot police officer who was set on fire by Antifa protesters was taken during May Day protests in Paris 2017. The photo was taken at the exact moment a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the officer. Unlike the photo of Yanela Sanchez this captured a unique moment in time. The image was so powerful that the media was forced to publish it but neglected to mention Antifa, black bloc or their anarchist, antigovernment, anti-police agenda. There were no lengthy news articles, commentaries or outrage. Not one news organization declared the photo an iconic symbol of anti-police violence. They never even identified the officer who suffered third-degree burns on his hands and neck, and second-degree burns on his face.

The photo was taken by Zakaria Abdelkafi a freelance photographer who lost an eye during the violence in Aleppo, Syria. Abdelkafi said, “I heard him screaming. And the policemen around him were screaming too. …He was a human being being burned alive in front of me. And the demonstrators, they didn’t care. They kept throwing things at the police. A short while later, they set a supermarket trolley on fire and pushed it toward the police.” A year later during the 2018 May Day protests security services chose to not engage the protesters while they were destroying property to avoid casualties on either side that could exacerbate tensions. The protesters message was sent and received. Mission accomplished.

A more insidious type of visual propaganda is a phenomenon called ‘riot porn’ also known as protest porn.  Riot porn refers to videos of riots and protests that involve violent confrontations with law enforcement. Anarchists post and share riot porn on social media for entertainment. There are numerous riot porn sites that post photographs, videos and advocate anarchy and violence. The more popular images depict protesters harming the police. It is a form of revolutionary fantasy that arouses the viewer by stimulating thoughts of rebellion and uprisings. Symbolic violence always proceeds actual violence. Just as violent pornography desensitizes men to violence against women, riot porn desensitizes protesters to violence against police. Riot porn is to anarchists as beheading videos are to jihadists. The videos function as war trophies, recruitment and training manuals for insurrections.

Insurrection begins with iconic images. In psychological operations carefully chosen images and other materials are disseminated to encourage popular discontent and manipulate target audiences. The messaging accompanying the photo of Yanela is scripted so the crying toddler is not just associated with immigration but is perceived as a symbol of oppression. The narrative portrays government enforcers stealing babies out of the arms of poor disenfranchised Latino women. Loaded language is employed to incite aggression. Government policies and officials associated with President Trump are designated enemies. Expressions like ‘family separation’ and ‘concentration camps’ are continually repeated to incite, agitate and trigger action.

The result of this media manipulation became evident last week when a Nebraska branch of Antifa tweeted out a link to the personal information of 1,595 ICE officers. The information was in a database that was compiled by a New York University professor. A few days later another Antifa activist tweeted out the names, pictures, spouses and home addresses of seven ICE employees in Oregon. It read, “It’s the public’s right to know the faces of the gestapo and who is creating, enforcing, and filling concentration camps in our name.”  That message was retweeted by the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective that has over 3,000 followers.” There should be no doubt that Antifa is a domestic terrorist group utilizing information operations to target federal agents.

The resistance movement is activated.  Protests are organized, busses are surrounded, public officials are harassed, and officers are injured. Peaceful protesters are replaced by anarchists who are stimulated by riot porn. Protests escalate to riots where officers are set on fire by petrol bombs. It is getting difficult to distinguish the resistance movement from a full-blown insurgency. Mission accomplished. 

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