Part A. The Persuasive Power of Images

Lesson 5: Images and Influence
Part A. The Persuasive Power of Images
Stop for a moment and think of an advertisement you saw on TV or a photo in your social
media feed that made you feel something or want to do something. Was the image of a
product you wanted to buy? Was it a selfie shared by a friend or family member? Was it a
funny meme? If it depicted a food product, did it make you hungry? What kind of reaction
did you have? Why did you have this reaction?
Tourist Taking a Selfie
Course Resource
Something as simple as a selfie shared by a friend or a photo of a club sandwich can be an
object of persuasion. Whether you consciously register it or not, every image that you
consume is trying to influence you to some degree. This is why we must always question
the images we see and the context in which they are being shared. For example, a friend
may have gotten “glammed up” to take a selfie that is all smiles and shared it on social
media to show how happy they are. However, you may know that your friend is actually
going through a difficult time in their life. Is the smiling selfie an accurate representation
of reality or is it staged and superficial? Is it being used to persuade a certain audience
that everything is OK?
Whatever the intent behind an image, it is important to understand the ways in which
images can be influential and even misleading, and where the gray areas are.
How Do Different Types of Images Affect Us?
For an introduction to how different graphic media influence us, Chapter
4: Visual Truth, Visual Lies (
direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=474113&site=edslive&scope=site&profile=edsebook&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_129) (129–
160) of Visual Persuasion is an illuminating read. Are photo ads more
“real” than line drawings? Is scotch whiskey more enticing when shown in
a comic book-style illustration or a luscious color photograph? Which
medium is best for promoting a social cause, and how? Pages 129–141
are especially germane to this part of the lesson.
Persuasion as a Goal of Visual Communication
The desire to persuade underlies much of our communication, whether spoken, written, or
According to the Encyclopedia of Communication Theory (Littlejohn & Foss, 2009),
“Persuasion—the activity of creating, reinforcing, or modifying beliefs, attitudes, or
behaviors—is a major underlying motivation for human communication and the
fountainhead of communication studies.”
We will focus now on two different forms of visual persuasion, unintentional and
Unintentional Visual Persuasion
Ice Cream Parlor Hijinks
According to The Handbook of Communication Science, much persuasive discourse can
be seen in off-the-cuff responses” and does not require a strong degree of agency or
forethought on the part of the person generating the message (Berger, Roloff, & RoskosEwoldsen, 2010).
What this means is that most of the time we are not conscious that we are being
persuaded or that we are trying to persuade; the act of persuasion is unintentional. For
example, take the candid, off-the-cuff, photo above of the mother and her three sons. It
looks to be a quick family snapshot to show a silly moment. We may think nothing of it.
However, depending on the context and the audience, there could be unintentional layers
of persuasion, such as the fact that they are standing in front of a sign that says, “Ice
Cream and Coffee House.” Perhaps this persuades a viewer who is on a diet to think about
how they want to indulge in an ice cream; perhaps it persuades someone who is a mother
of girls that it would be more fun to have boys; perhaps it alienates a viewer who has a
different cultural background or depresses someone who is lactose-intolerant. The photo
could also, of course, persuade viewers that this is a fun family with an irreverent sense of
humor who enjoys spending time together.
These are all possible reactions that one may have to the seemingly innocent and silly
family photo; this family photo reinforces the notion that every image has the potential to
carry with it facets of unintentional persuasion.
Intentional Visual Persuasion
When the act of persuasion is intentional, the image’s color, composition, and use of
symbols and other elements can strategically influence our opinion or behavior.
“Persuasive efforts, especially those that are the product of marketing departments and
political campaigns, are carefully constructed and consciously orchestrated” (Berger,
Roloff, & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2010).
Lucky Strike Box, Circa 1944
Source: Alf van Beem, Wikimedia Commons
Take for example the Lucky Strike cigarette box from 1944. The jade green color was
specifically chosen to target women and make smoking a non-taboo and seemingly posh
gesture. Edward Bernays, head of the marketing campaign for the American Tobacco
Company, came up with the idea to market this green color as fashionable for women. He
held events in which socialites of the time wore the same green color to produce an
association. This is a prime example of a conscious and carefully orchestrated intentional
persuasive effort by a marketing campaign.
The use of the green color for the Lucky Strike cigarette box “also gives a nod to the
fundamentally social nature of persuasion and how it is seen as a social skill” (Berger,
Roloff, & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2010). The green color was used to promote the cigarettes in
a social way, calling upon consumers, especially women, to see the product as a way to
engage with and be part of high society. Consider what we learned in Week 3 about color
and how it can be used to communicate visually: The creators of ads are well-aware of
how color can be used to persuade.
The Art of Appeal
To learn more about the man behind the Lucky Strike box, browse the
Week 5 learning resource Public Relations or Propaganda? Edward
Bernays and the Founding of PR
/learning-resource-list/public-relations-or-propaganda–edward-bernaysand-the-founding-.html?ou=645036) . Find out how Bernays branded
cigarettes “torches of liberty” and bolstered the appeal of Ivory soap
through floating soap sculptures.
And, if you’re interested in advertising or public relations, either as a
consumer or as someone looking for a career path, browse Advertising
and Public Relations
ou=645036) . It’s worth it if only for the see-it-to-believe-it classic ads.
Part B. Visual Propaganda
The example above is a good segue into a specific persuasive tool: propaganda
direct=true&db=ers&AN=125600368&site=eds-live&scope=site&profile=edsebook) .
According to Dziak (2020), propaganda is the “process of using words, images, and other
forms of communication to sway the opinions of others.” If you think this sounds like what
you just saw in the Lucky Strike ad, you’re right. Bernays freely used the term for his work.
Historically, propaganda had a positive connotation. It has its roots in the efforts of mostly
religious groups to spread—or propagate—their gospel.
Ever since World War II and the Nazi party’s use of the term, however, we typically
associate propaganda with attempts of authority figures, governments, and activist groups
to sway our views. We do not associate propaganda with objective messages, or even the
enticing displays used in advertisements. Rather, we understand it to consist of selected
facts—or carefully chosen imagery—to promote a group’s agenda. Because the contents
are biased and exclude alternative points of view, the message is one-sided and intends to
produce an emotional rather than a rational response from the viewer.
Propaganda can be disseminated on posters, pamphlets, films, photos, ad campaigns, TV
shows, websites, news broadcasts, cartoons, comic strips, newspapers, radio shows,
YouTube channels, and so forth. In present society, bots and algorithms can be used to
create “computational propaganda,” which allows for fake and biased news to spread all
over social media (Dziak, 2000; Wikipedia, n.d.a).
Examples: Propaganda in Indonesia
Below are some photos of propaganda posters taken by the lesson author. Note that
these posters each target a different audience.
You may infer from these examples that not all propaganda is “bad.” Just because it
presents one side in attempt to sway the viewer does not mean that the purpose is
always to harm or deceive.
Indonesian Nationalist Group, Poster, 1947
Poster from the collection of the National Archives of the Netherlands; Photo by Ding Ren
Above is a poster created in 1947 by an Indonesian nationalist group during the war
of independence against the Netherlands. This poster is an example of propaganda,
as it was designed to sway the opinion of the general public to the pro-revolution
side. By invoking the symbol of Borobudur (a ninth-century Buddhist temple in
central Java), the designers of the poster were trying to tap into the viewers’
national pride and connect an ancient past to the modern fight for independence.
Here, you can see the use of a cultural symbol used to reach a particular audience
for a very specific—and very persuasive—purpose!
Indonesian Nationalist Group, Poster in English, 1945
Source: Poster from the collection of the National Archives of the Netherlands; photo by Ding Ren.
This poster, also created during the Indonesian revolution, was designed with
American soldiers as the target audience; it is therefore written in English and has
references to freeing colonies. In 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender, Allied
forces began re-taking formerly Japanese-occupied areas, including the Dutch
colony of Indonesia. Indonesian revolutionaries, fighting for independence from the
Dutch, expected American soldiers to arrive in Java, and thus focused their
propaganda on democracy and America’s own war of independence. Photographs
from the city of Surabaya (where this poster was found) also show quotes from the
Declaration of Independence and other slogans aimed at American soldiers.
How Does Propaganda Work?
Propaganda is used to persuade and manipulate, most commonly in a political or social
setting. Those on either side of a political or social issue often try to sway those who are
seemingly neutral to one side or the other. Commercially, an advertisement such as a TV
commercial or billboard may be used to place the idea of a product into a consumer’s
mind, whether they were intending to purchase the product or not. This can be seen in
the Lucky Strike example above, where the green color is placed in the target consumer’s
mind through social and sponsored marketing events. Think about what you learned in
Week 4 about demographics and psychographics. Bernays and his team induced a positive
feeling in women with a jade green color that paid off in cigarette sales!
How effective propaganda is therefore depends on the intended audience and how the
content is presented. The most direct kind of propaganda is focused on a well-defined
target audience. In the social cause arena, the main approach would be to convince a type
of voter with particular demographic and psychographic traits—perhaps an unmarried
male who resides in an urban area—that one reform issue is best solved in a particular way
and to support that side, either through a donation or with a vote. Oftentimes,
propaganda products attack the opposition by bringing up unfavorable information.
(Littlejohn & Foss, 2009)
Propaganda in History: A Few Examples
Propaganda dates back as far as recorded history. While today we view the term
negatively, it does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. All imagery meant to
persuade us, to impact our actions, can be seen as propaganda in some sense. In this
section, we will focus on a few historical examples from the twentieth century. During this
century, both communist and capitalist countries used imagery to influence their citizens
and espouse the benefits of their economic and political systems. We will see examples of
(1) Socialist Realism, an art movement supported by the Soviet Union; (2) Chinese posters
developed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a period of radical social and political
upheaval in China; and (3) anti-Socialist ads created by the US government after World
War II.
Propaganda is not necessarily meant only for domestic consumption, as you saw with the
second example from WWII-era Indonesia, above. We will also see how the US federal
government used post-war modern art to showcase America as a place of free-thinkers, a
country where new art styles could flourish (in contrast to the Soviet Union). Exhibitions
that were originally shown in New York at the Museum of Modern Art later traveled
around Europe to promote American creativity and free-market liberalism.
1. Socialist Realism
Socialist Realism Propaganda Example: The Green Bridge
In 1932, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official state art
movement, with the government setting rules and standards for artists to follow. Focusing
on imagery of workers—laborers and farmers (the hammer and sickle)—Socialist Realism
can also be seen in the grand sculptures of socialist philosophers like Marx and Engels and
Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin that decorated Eastern Europe. According to the Salem
Press Encyclopedia, “workers were to be presented as heroes, capitalists as exploitative
and malevolent, and Stalin himself as a benevolent father or a brave leader” (Socialist
Realism, 2019).
The above photograph is an example of a Socialist Realist monument in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The man on the left holding the brick is meant to glorify construction, and the one on the
right holding the rocket is meant to celebrate industry. The heroic stance of these figures,
with arms open and knee propped up, is meant to persuade us that the working class
should be paid attention to.
2. Cultural Revolution
Following a period of political failures, Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of
China, initiated the Cultural Revolution. This meant a complete repudiation of Chinese
historical-cultural legacies and the establishment of Mao as the center of a new cultural
epoch. The Revolution was a consolidation of power that led to the jailing and deaths of
those whom Mao deemed enemies or counterrevolutionaries.
Similar to Socialist Realist art, the art of the Cultural Revolution put the worker—and Mao
—at the center. As can be seen in the image below, a smiling Mao Zedong radiates like the
sun while happy workers, soldiers, and ethnic minorities march forward. Such posters had
government slogans printed on them, while also carrying clear visual messages for the
largely illiterate farmer population at which they were aimed. The posters were meant to
solidify Maoist thought among the people and influence the average Chinese citizen’s
view of the Communist Party. Read the below quote for a deeper understanding of the
aesthetics of the posters:
Chinese propaganda posters and related image forms used aesthetic and affective
techniques that helped legitimize the Party-State by closing the gap between
everyday experience and political ideology. Propaganda posters were designed to
create a new type of “political” subject wholly identified with the State, without any
interruption of “social” responses such as critique, desire, irony or resistance. They
were supposed to put into practice the aesthetic-political principle of unity, as
conceptualised by Mao. (Hemelryk, 2014)
Cultural Revolution Propaganda Example: The Sunshine of Mao Zedong Thought
Illuminates the Path of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution
You read about some of the symbols used in Socialist Realism (the brick
symbolizing construction and the rocket symbolizing industry). Do you
see any symbolism in this image? Any culturally specific use of color or
imagery? Any design principles that confer meaning?
3. USIA and Modern Art
Abstract Expressionism, a movement in post-war American modern art exemplified by
artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), was in many ways the opposite of Socialist
Realism and the propaganda art of communist states. For this reason, the United States
State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA), along with the
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, organized traveling exhibitions of Abstract
Ask Yourself
Jackson Pollock Drip-Painting
on the Floor
Expressionist artists. While the work is not overtly
propaganda to our eyes, it was used to project American
freedom and creativity in the face of communism (Segal,
Below is a short video on the role of the federal
government in the war of propaganda between the
United States and Soviet Union. Note how the Ad
Council video goes beyond hyperbole in its exaggeration
of the issue. This is part of what makes it a piece of
propaganda: You are definitely not seeing a fair
treatment of both sides!
How the Ad Council and Federal Government Influenced America’s
Perception of Socialism After WWII
Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy, Associate Teaching Professor, American Studies at the
Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Miami University in Ohio
This video excerpts cartoon strips produced by the Ad Council and the US government to
influence how Americans viewed the Soviets and their political ideology.
As you can see, the Cold War was fought on many different “battlefields.” A war of
ideologies comes down to public opinion and public mindsets, a fact exploited by leaders
and corporations around the world.
Click the arrows to see more examples of propaganda, including in product promotion.
Ask yourselves, are these examples “innocent”? Or are they harmful or deceptive? Why do
you think so?
A Few Easy Pieces of Propaganda
World War II… Coca-Cola Fights On!
During World War II, Coca-Cola embarked on an international campaign to portray
the beverage as an all-American product uniting people from all around the world.
Here, Coca-Cola is broadcasting its ability to help out on the home front, hydrating
women serving the war effort in factories.
World War II Victory Garden Poster
During World War II, the United States faced labor and transportation shortages and
therefore wanted families to grow their own fruits and vegetables. “Victory garden”
posters—and even the phrase itself—were meant to encourage home farming as a
patriotic activity. They also indirectly aided “…the war effort, and were considered a
civil ‘morale booster’…gardeners [felt] empowered by their contribution of labor and
rewarded by the produce grown.” (Retrieved from “Victory garden as a form of
propaganda?” (Wikipedia, n.d.b; Wessels Living History Farm, n.d.).
World War I John Bull Recruiting Poster
Part C. Image Manipulation
So far, we’ve explored the concepts of visual persuasion and propaganda. What happens
when images are not just carefully organized or staged, but changed after production, to
affect how people think and feel about the subject of the image? Let’s take a little time to
look at a few examples of photo manipulation, or the alteration of photos after they’ve
been taken, starting with one of the most famous cases of Soviet photo manipulation used
to “erase” people from the historical record.
In this British World War I recruiting poster, the figure pointing a finger would have
been immediately recognizable as John Bull, a fictional embodiment of national
identity similar to the American Uncle Sam (Johnson, n.d.). Just in case the viewer is
confused about his patriotic duty, Bull wears a vest embossed with a British flag.
Woman and Man in 1930s Soviet Poster
Here is some more Soviet art; this example is from a regional history museum in
Yezhov Goes Missing
Soviet Photo Alteration: Where’s Yezhov?
During Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union, a common form of
power consolidation was purging members of the
Communist Party that Stalin deemed enemies. After their
execution, the entire memory of the person had to be
removed. Photographs were manipulated to erase the
person, as can be seen in the example below, where Soviet
secret police official Nikolai Yezhov is removed from a
photograph of himself and Stalin (Smith, 2020).
Image manipulation is, of course, not confined to the past
or to leaders of foreign countries. As we discussed above,
producers of ads and other media use images to make the
viewer feel or act a certain way (be happy, donate now, buy
this, vote for me, etc.). This sometimes involves not just
producing images but altering them in ethically
questionable ways. Below we will discuss a few more recent examples of governmental
parties and media (mis)using and manipulating images.
TIME Magazine and OJ Simpson
Here’s a less recent but highly controversial example of image alteration, this time by a
media outlet. In 1994, TIME Magazine ran a story on the OJ Simpson trial after Simpson
had been accused of murdering his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald
Goldman. TIME altered the photograph of OJ Simpson on its cover to make him look
darker. Many were quick to point out the racial implications—a blacker man would read
guiltier and more threatening to the intended audience—and to decry the magazine’s
choice. TIME denied any race-based motivations, stating that the magazine simply wanted
to make the cover visually compelling. Eventually, the managing editor issued an apology
(Schifellite, 2020).
All magazines and newspapers—and media sites on the web—make image choices every
day to convey certain feelings or to create certain narratives. What photos are chosen in
the months before an election (a jubilant candidate, a sulking party member) tell us how
that source views the race and whom it favors. Persuasion through image choice is quite
standard in the media. Persuasion through image manipulation, as many believed TIME to
have attempted in the case above, is much different.
Canadian Green Party and the Water Cup
Our final example in this section concerns manipulation not by a governmental or media
entity, but by a political party. In 2019, the Canadian Green Party doctored an image on
its website showing party leader Elizabeth May holding a cup. The original cup was paper
and disposable, but party members changed the photograph to have it appear as a
reusable cup with a metal straw. The person who altered the photograph obviously
wanted to heighten May’s environmental credentials and suggest to the viewer that the
party leader always carried a reusable cup with her rather than purchase a single-use
beverage container. May expressed shock and outrage at the manipulated photo while
stating that the paper cup was compostable and thus did not need to be altered in the
first place to appear environmentally friendly (Cecco, 2019).
Can You Spot a Fake?
The Week 5 learning resource Can People Identify Original and
Manipulated Photos of Real-World Scenes?
ou=645036) provides a look at just how prevalent image manipulation
is—and what the implications are for the legal system and everyday life.
Part D. Images and Ethics
With all we’ve explored above, you may be asking yourself, “Where do I draw the line?
When is it okay to attempt to persuade with an image, and when am I being unethical?”
Image ethics can be defined as how we share, create, and consume images and the
decisions involved in doing so. On a very basic level, ethics are thought to be a kind of
code defining our personal decisions and placing them into categories such as good or
bad. As we all know, nothing is ever so easily categorized, and with roughly 7.3 trillion
digital photos being taken (, 2020), shared, and consumed in the year 2020
alone, we can’t possibly believe that every photo comes with the best ethical intentions
even if it couldn’t properly be called “bad.”
In an era of fake news and disinformation—especially online—we have to be active in
questioning the imagery that we see. How can we know that what we see represents
reality? Is what we are looking at accurate, unbiased, unaltered? Can we ever be sure
when all images, even those that are not manipulated, are in some way meant to be
manipulative and influence our emotions or behaviors?
Ethical considerations are often shrouded in shades of gray. Context and intent matter
when making ethical determinations. Often, the best way to approach ethical questions is
to be informed, know your own ethical line, and be consistent in your decision-making
process. For example, is there an ethical distinction between a sponsored Instagram post
by an influencer and Stalin’s use of photo manipulation to remove executed political
enemies from the historical record? At first, this question might appear laughable, and
quite obvious in its answer—of course there is a difference. But fundamentally, at their
core, both images are meant to influence our thinking or behavior, and therefore
manipulate us in some way. If we think of the ethics of manipulation via images as a
continuum from social media posts all the way through to Soviet erasure, each one of us
would draw the line between ethical and not somewhere—perhaps we would all draw it at
a different point. Therefore, the question for you is, where do you draw the line?
The following cases will help you define where to draw the line.
Ethical or Not? Two Civil War Case Studies
The Case of the Moved Body
As we have seen, manipulation of photographs is nothing new. In fact, it dates back
to the very earliest days of the medium. War photography is still a striking form of
documentary photography, meant to show the hardships and impact of warzones to
those outside them. War photographers are trying to tell a story—create a narrative.
In the below example from the Library of Congress Civil War photograph collection,
we will see the work of photographer Alexander Gardner (1821–1882) and
members of his staff. Gardner was a Scottish immigrant and supporter of the Union
whose photographs were meant to highlight his patriotism and belief in Union
cause. While he is known for his photographs of the war, portraits of Abraham
Lincoln, and photographs of the execution of the plotters of Lincoln’s assassination,
we will read about a controversial side of his photography. Work in the 1970s by
historian William Frassanito uncovered cases of in which Gardner moved bodies and
portrayed the same corpses as Union or Confederate dead depending on the
narrative he was trying to portray. Is this ethical? Does knowing what Gardner did
change how we see his photographs? Does it alter the effect these photos have on
On the left, see an excerpt from Plate 41, a photograph of a Confederate soldier
killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. Frassanito determined this soldier was the same
individual photographed in “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep,” viewed on the right as an
excerpt from Plate 40. Frassanito deduced that Gardner had moved this soldier from
the open battlefield to the more picturesque “sharpshooter’s den” shown in Plate
41. Furthermore, the musket picturesquely placed near the soldier in the photos was
not used by sharpshooters and is likely a prop Gardner employed. Frassanito makes
the case that this body may have been one of the last to be buried, leaving Gardner
with few subjects left and causing him to move the body for various photographs.
As the Library of Congress states, “Gardner’s story succeeded in transforming this
soldier into a particular character in the drama, a man who suffered a painful, lonely,
unrecognized death” (Library of Congress, n.d.a).
Click here to see the full version of each photo and to get a sense of the
overall composition and musket placement. You can enlarge each image by
clicking it.
Alexander Gardner, Plate 41. The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, 1863,
Alexander Gardner, Alternate Exposure for Plate 40. A Sharpshooter’s Last
Sleep, 1863, photograph
Alexander Gardner, Plate 41. The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, 1863,
Knowing that photographers employ techniques such as lighting, perspective, and
placement of items to present a cleaner or more dramatic narrative, one must
always ask: Is the true story being told? Where is the line between telling a story
and distorting the truth? In the above historic example, one could see the honor of
the soldier as being erased when the events leading to his death were re-staged for
effect. On the other hand, one could see Gardner’s artistry as giving meaning to the
soldier’s death and presenting a truer-than-life depiction of the devastation of war.
Gardner himself held that making strategic adjustments to a scene was no different
from the techniques studio photographers employed in creating portraits (Robinson,
The Case of Confused Identity
Alexander Gardner, Alternate Exposure for Plate 40. A Sharpshooter’s Last
Sleep, 1863, photograph
Our second example from Gardner and his staff concerns the identity of bodies as
either Union or Confederate soldiers (Library of Congress, n.d.b).
Below you will see two photographs. Plate 36 on the left shows men identified by
Gardner as Confederate soldiers and traitors to the Union whose actions brought
them their death. Plate 37 shows soldiers identified by Gardner as Union soldiers.
Along with the photograph, Gardner included a description of the peaceful Union
dead, waxing poetic on the sacrifice made by the men. However, Frassanito shows
these two photographs to be of the same men, from simply a different angle.
On the photos below, the men are numbered, and you can also see the shape of a
diamond. In both photographs, the diamond is positioned above a piece of clothing
with a diamond badge—worn only by Union soldiers of the 3rd Corps. This was
Frassanito’s major clue as to the true identity of the soldiers. One can look at the
hand positions of the men and see they are the same in each photo.
Timothy O’Sullivan, Plate 36. Bodies of “Confederate” Soldiers, 1863,
Timothy O’Sullivan, Plate 37. Bodies of Union Soldiers, 1863, photograph
Click here to see the full version of each photo. You can enlarge each image by
clicking it.
Timothy O’Sullivan, Plate 36. Bodies of “Confederate” Soldiers, 1863,
This analysis is based upon the pioneering work of the historian William Frassanito
(1975) in his book Gettysburg: A Journey in Time.
Summing up its study on Gardner, the Library of Congress states that
Photographers often want to communicate a thought or emotion with their
work. Although the camera lens views the world impartially, the photographer
constantly judges, deciding what to photograph and how to photograph it—
focusing on creating a strong image that will communicate the desired
message. The words that accompany a photograph may also influence the way
we “read” the picture. (Library of Congress, n.d.c)
The above case studies of Civil War era photographs shows that seemingly true-tolife scenes were being staged, embellished, and doctored very early in the history of
Timothy O’Sullivan, Plate 37. Bodies of Union Soldiers, 1863, photograph
Ethics in Visual Communication
If you’re interested in ethics in advertising, the Week 5 learning resource
Epilogue: Ethics of Visual Persuasion (
direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=474113&site=edslive&scope=site&profile=edsebook&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_265) (pp. 265–
274) of Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising provides a
scholarly take on issues such as depicting sex appeal, when you can alter
images, and so forth.
In Verification and Deepfakes: The Ethics of Modern Photojournalism
/learning-resource-list/verification-and-deepfakes–the-ethics-ofmodern-photojournalism.html?ou=645036) , journalist Salim Amin
discusses potential bias in image selection—are we more comfortable
looking at grisly scenes from Africa than the United States?—and a few
other ethical considerations in the field.
Part E. Techniques of Visual Persuasion
Here, we’ll explore a few ways in which photographers visually persuade. Some of these
involve actual manipulation of images and some involve the use of framing, lighting,
composition, and other techniques of visual design: In other words, what you show and
how you show it.
Photo Manipulation and Deepfakes
Photo manipulation or alteration, explored above, is a technique of visual persuasion. The
powerful software that anyone with an internet connection has access to makes this
If you’d like to learn more about the history and techniques, read the Salem Press
Encyclopedia entry on photo manipulation (
direct=true&db=ers&AN=90558423&site=eds-live&scope=site&profile=edsebook) .
Take the example of the woman with the tattoo on her arm below. Because of digital
manipulation software, the viewer does not know if the woman has a tattoo on her arm or
not and what design is on her arm.
Tattooed or Not?
Deepfake (
technology goes beyond traditional photo manipulation, relying on artificial intelligence
(AI) technologies to enable everyday computer users to manufacture convincing sounds,
static images, and moving images. You’ll learn more about deepfakes in Lesson 7, but the
video below is a great introduction.
Introduction to Deepfakes
Charlotte Dungan, Program Architect, NCSSM’s Artificial
Intelligence program
More Techniques of Visual Deception
We direct you again to Chapter 4: Visual Truth, Visual Lies
direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=474113&site=edslive&scope=site&profile=edsebook&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_129) (129–
160) of Visual Persuasion, in which the Visual Deception section starting
on page 142 rounds out your study of techniques used to persuade and
manipulate. Learn about staging, editing, mislabeling, and more. Although
somewhat dated in its content, the resource provides a thorough and
entertaining supplement to this part of the lesson.
0:00 / 1:41
Manipulated vs. Manipulative
It is important here to note the difference between a manipulated photo and a
manipulative one. In the first case (manipulated), it is the image itself that is being
altered or manipulated—for instance the tattoo photo above or the image of the
Canadian Green Party leader holding the water cup. In the second case
(manipulative), the photo is one where we, the audience, are the ones being
manipulated. One could make the argument that all photographs, all images, are
manipulative. They are all meant to invoke certain feelings, reactions, or memories in
the viewer. Manipulated photos are therefore also manipulative. We could
photoshop tattoos (manipulated) to make us appear tougher in a photo
(manipulative). The Canadian Green Party doctored images (manipulated) so that the
viewer would think the party leader always went about with a reusable cup and
straw (manipulative).
What You Show and How You Show It
There are other visual persuasion techniques that do not involve using technology to alter
the image, but rely on the way in which the photo is taken—vantage, framing, lighting,
background, and principles of composition and design.
Where, for example, do you place the viewer? Remember the photos of the two men
shown side-by-side in Lesson 2. How does it affect us when we’re looking up at someone
versus down? What if the person is scowling versus smiling? How is the scene framed—
that is, what is included and what is left out?
Depending on the vantage taken, a person can look wan or full of dynamism, a facial
expression can betoken boredom or solemnity, and an event can look fun or tedious. The
use of symbols such as a baseball cap, an apple, or an angel statue can shift our emotions
as well.
Take the image below. This ball game looks well-attended.
Ball Game, Photo 1
Thomas Barwick / Stone Collection / Getty
But the camera pulls back, revealing that these fun-loving people are the only folks
Ball Game, Photo 2
Thomas Barwick / Stone Collection / Getty
We would feel differently still if the camera moved to the right to show crying children or
an angry coach or a gathering flock of pigeons. Framing matters, lighting matters, and
camera placement matters.
Case Study: Visual Principles and Influence
When composed effectively enough, images can become iconic, engrained in our
collective memory, and can influence the way we feel and the way we remember
people, products, and events.
We’ve seen in this lesson how color, symbolism, composition, and framing can be
persuasive tools; we’re going to focus here on other visual principles and how they
can be used to give an image sticking power.
You are likely familiar with the photo below.
Photo 1 of Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, 1945
While this is the most famous flag-raising photo of the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945)—
and the photo that became iconic—it is not the only photo of a flag raising during
the battle.
Here is another:
Photo 2 of Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, 1945
Why is the top photo (taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal) more engrained in
our collective memory of the battle than any other? What led it to become the
definitive photo of the Battle of Iwo Jima?
A lot has to do with the use of visual principles.
Here are two photos again. You can click them to enlarge them.
Photo 1 of Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, 1945
In Photo 1, the strong diagonal line that the flagpole creates acts as a leading line,
which balances the composition and leads the eye from the bottom right-hand
corner of the photograph to the top left-hand corner. This creates a sense
of movement and energy that communicates the struggle the soldiers are exerting
to raise the flag. In Photo 2, the flagpole is standing straight, and therefore does not
communicate the same sense of movement. Secondly, the iconic photograph (Photo
Photo 2 of Flag Raising on Iwo Jima, 1945
1) has a strong sense of balance to it, with the soldiers and flag creating a triangular
shape in the center of the photograph. This visual triangle acts like the rule of thirds,
a classic photographic compositional tool, and draws the viewer’s attention into the
photograph immediately. In Photo 2, there is no obvious visual triangle and
therefore not the same sense of balance.
These are just a few of the visual principles that make Photo 1 the stronger
photograph than Photo 2—so strong that it is the basis of a memorial sculpture in
Washington, DC. When someone says “Battle of Iwo Jima,” Photo 1 is the image
that appears in our minds.
Part F. What Does All This Mean to Me?
As a visual producer, you’ll want to be mindful of the ways in which you produce and
display imagery. As a consumer, you’ll want to ask yourself if you’re being persuaded—or
manipulated—and be mindful of how.
What Images Do I Use?
You may find yourself asking this question when you are deciding what to post to your
social media accounts—if you choose to use them, that is.
You have likely heard the term “influencer” as it relates to social media. Whether you’re
paid for it or not, if you use social media, you’re an influencer. To be a more mindful
influencer, you can begin by asking questions such as: Are photos of friends and family
members, selfies, and snapshots of pets candid or staged? Is what you are seeing an actual
happy moment, or is it very posed? Are you or your family members sharing only the
“shiny” moments and hiding the conflicts? Or are you depicting moments of gloom or
tension to make your life look more dramatic than it is? Arranging various items for
comedic effect? What do you owe your audience in the way of photo-realism, given that
the purpose of social media is to put your life into a narrative framework, and does your
audience even want this?
From personal to professional to political, images are chosen based on intentions and
oftentimes used to persuade the viewer in some way. It’s a good idea to get into the habit
of asking yourself questions like those above as you’re choosing what images to share.
How Real Is It, Anyway? The Case of the Dubious Influencer Photo
Loving This Smoothie So Much!
The above photo is hash-tagged “#travelphotography” and a good example of a
social media-worthy post that an influencer might post to share about his or her
vacation. The tilted composition communicates that the photo is a quick snapshot
and therefore unstaged. We as the viewer do not know how many versions of the
photo were taken and whether this is the only one or not. However, the caption of
the photo reads, “Loving this smoothie so much!” but if you look closely, it shows a
full smoothie cup and a full coffee, so can we really believe the caption when she
has barely made a dent in the smoothie she is drinking? Because the photo is bright
and the pink smoothie cup looks inviting while it’s being held by the happy woman,
it is easy to overlook the discrepancy with the image caption and be persuaded that
this is indeed a tasty smoothie and that this café is worth a visit if you are ever in
What Images Do I Believe?
It is important to question the images we look at and ask ourselves whether they are
influencing us and, if so, to what end. First, we must consider the context of the image.
Check the source. Does the producer of the image have an agenda? How nefarious is this
agenda? The agenda could be fairly benign, as with your friend with the happy selfie. Or, it
could be to ridicule someone, to make a bad product look good, or to present an event in
a false light. It could also be that the image was created without an agenda, but is being
used by a publisher who is distorting the original message, or vice-versa. It’s one thing for
the photo of Stalin’s “erased” friend to appear in an encyclopedia entry about photo
manipulation, but another for the photo to appear in its original context as if Yezhov never
Online, images are often re-posted and even manipulated without reference to the source.
How can we then “read” the images in their proper context? The answer is: We often
cannot. This is why we must always have a critical eye toward the images that we
consume. Who created the image? What is this individual trying to tell us? Is the
individual trying to sell us something? What narrative is he or she trying to build? Who
benefits from the image shown? And, finally, what is the creator trying to communicate
through the use of visual principles, framing, perspective, and other techniques?
Berger, C. R., Roloff, M. E., & Roskos-Ewoldsen, D. R. (2010). The handbook of
communication science. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Cecco, L. (2019). Canada’s Green Party alters photo of leader using single-use cup. The
Dziak, M. (2020). Propaganda. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Frassanito, W. (1975). Gettysburg: A journey in time. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Hemelryk, D. S. (2014). Red aesthetics, intermediality and the use of posters in Chinese
cinema after 1949. Asian Studies Review, 38(4), 658–675.
Johnson, B. (n.d.). John Bull. Historic UK.
Library of Congress. (n.d.a). The case of the moved body.
Library of Congress. (n.d.b). The case of confused identity.
Library of Congress (n.d.c). Does the camera ever lie?
Littlejohn, S. W., & Foss, K. A. (Eds.). (2009). Encyclopedia of communication theory. (Vols.
1–2). SAGE Publications, Inc. (2020). How many photos will be taken in 2020?
Robinson, L. (n.d.). History of photography: Brady, Gardner, and the Civil War. Photofocus.
Schifellite, C. J. (2020). Time Magazine cover uses altered O. J. Simpson photo. Salem
Press Encyclopedia.
Segal, J. (2016). Art and politics: Between purity and propaganda. Amsterdam University
Smith, D. G. (2020). Photograph alteration detection. Salem Press Encyclopedia of
Socialist Realism. (2019). Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Wessels Living History Farm. (n.d.). Victory gardens.
Wikipedia. (n.d.a). Propaganda.
Wikipedia. (n.d.b). Victory garden.
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