How Richard Nixon Manipulated the Context of a Photograph for His Campaign

Photojournalism has been central to politics for the last century or so, and while that's sometimes a force for good or a mere recording of events, sometimes it ends up being used for a different purpose altogether.

Disinformation using photography has become a problem in the social media, and it's an article I'm on working on. This is typically in the political arena that images are used to portray something in a way that wasn't either originally intended, or not accurately with accordance to events as they happened. In the U.K. there has been a recent example of this from supporters of Boris Johnson who wish to rally others behind the country's leader. It depicted Johnson with his head in his hands, clearly filled with angst and stress. Captions for the image as it made its rounds on social media varied in words, but less so in message. They pointed out that the toll of COVID-19 and the pressures of leading a country through it are clearly weighing heavy on him; he's only a human being and we need to cut him some slack.

Whilst perhaps it's true, the image did not show that. Firstly, it wasn't necessarily stress at all, it was Johnson taking a break from a Conservative Party conference. Secondly, the image was 18 years old! This sort of disinformation (or misinformation if you're feeling incredibly generous) is not new, but it is pervasive. In this video, we see an example decades ago where Richard Nixon used an image of him pointing a finger at Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev. They were allegedly bickering over food, in jest, and the contact sheet shows them both smiling and Krushchev poking Nixon back. However, Nixon used this image as a flagship poster of his campaign, where it was suggested that Nixon was standing up to communism.

It's a fascinating and cautionary tale, more relevant than ever before.

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8 Comments

James Michael's picture

Did Nixon stand up to Communism? Isn't the truth of the message more important than the delivery? I understand your point but I think you're giving too much credit to photos. You can write an article, give a speech or convey a message in any number of ways and, certainly, a photo gives a certain perception of truth but there are all kinds of ways to lie, or tell the truth, and I would argue, living in the days of "Photoshop" being used as a verb more than a noun, it's *less* relevant than ever before. Everyone questions photos, as they should.

James Michael's picture

Actually, I don't care if he stood up to Communism or not. It was a rhetorical question designed to introduce my point that the message's truth, or fallacy, is more important than the delivery of that message. Had the same image been used to show the opposite, it wouldn't have changed my comment. But I'm glad it made you smile. :-)

Michel Higuet's picture

it is too dangerous to let the masses think for themselves, the media are there to lead them ...

AJ L's picture

Next time I’m out shooting I’m bringing a mask with a hole in it to smoke a cigar through.