Writing on photography

Notes on the Media, Photography and Nationalism

‘The Emperor was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. All around him, Death was drawing his circles, mowing and mowing. Already the whole field was bare, and only the Emperor, like a forgotten silver stalk, still stood and waited…At home he walked around with short pattering little steps. But as soon as he set foot on the street outside, he tried to make his thighs sinewy, his knees supple, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with an unnatural goodness, and with the true quality of imperial eyes: that of appearing to look at anyone who looked at the Emperor’
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Coincidences are often just that, unlikely parallel moments with no deeper meaning. Sometimes though they are something more, a reflection of shared causation, entwined origins. It’s always interested me that my first specialism, history, began to emerge as an academic discipline in the same period that nationalism was becoming an important ideology. Something which I at first assumed was a chance similarity became more and more clearly connected as I read and began to understand how the two had emerged from similar world views and had evolved together into a form of symbiosis. Nation states needed historical narratives to argue for their legitimacy, and academic history was given recognition and relevancy by providing these narratives.

Another coincidence I’ve often wondered about is the conception and invention of photography around the same time. To muse on this is not to imply that photography was necessarily a response to a national-historical agenda, even if there are detectable traces of cross-pollination. Rather the question that has intrigued me is what part photography might have played in supporting the national projects of the time, and how it might have continued to shape national identity since. This question has been back on my mind since writing about nationalism and Crimea last week, so I thought I’d dip into my (rather hazy) undergraduate memories and put down a few thoughts on the subject.

Broadly speaking a nation is a community of people united by a share culture, language, ancestry, history, or some variation of the same. Sometimes they inhabit a defined territory with a unified government; (the ‘nation state’). Often they don’t, subsumed within other nations, or existing as part of multinational entity, for example the Habspburg Empire. For primordialist theorists the nation is ancient and unchanging, only our recognition of it is modern. By contrast for modernists the nation is a recent and largely political invention, an ‘imagined community’ to use Benedict Anderson’s celebrated phrase.

The modernist view is the one I tend to cling to, in part I suppose because my own political biases and familial history push me away from the idea of the nation as immutable, but also because this view opens up the obviously interesting question of how nations are formed. Here the ‘imagined’ element becomes important, because as Anderson argues the size of most nations make it impossible to conceive of them as any other type of community. Even in the smallest state, with a population of say a few thousand people, it’s improbable that every person could have direct contact with or knowledge of every other member of that community. For that reason the sense of the nation as a community instead has to live in the imagination, sustained by various substitutes or proxies for direct experience. For example historical narratives, and the mass media, including of course visual media like photography.

The importance of the mass media lies in bringing together people across a wide area with the same experience of key events, their actors and agents. Knowledge of the news means an event like a national ceremony, perhaps only directly experienced by a small number of members of the nation, becomes something that almost everyone can discuss with almost everyone else. These events become a source of collective communion, even where the people involved had no experience of them. The names of some early newspapers almost allude to this role in transmuting great distances and unifying disparate peoples, for example The Telegraph, The Daily Post, or even The Nation.

Illustrations began to appear regularly in newspaper from the start of the nineteenth century, for example the first recorded illustration in The Times was of Nelson’s funeral in 1806 (an event of enormous national significance). From here on illustrations become increasingly common, culminating with the publication of the first weekly illustrated paper The London Illustrated News in 1842. In 1880 the halftone process finally made it possible to reproduced photographs, where before they had been only used as references for drawings or engravings. Illustrations, photographic or otherwise, had the obvious advantage that they were more or less understandable to everyone, even the illiterate, who around 1800 made up around 40% of the English population. From the perspective of extending this sense of national communion to as many people as possible the value of such images must be clear.

The role of images is also important in creating a canon of recognisable national iconography. The repetition of these icons raises them to an almost mythic status, a position of which makes highly charged and difficult to reproach. This becomes particularly apparent in a year like 2014, the anniversary of the start of the first world war, when familiar national icons are brought out to act as a sort of unifying visual shorthand for the conflict. The Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, are recognised as significant even by those who know little of their history or symbolic underpinnings, and even by those who have never seen these objects in the flesh. As evidence of their status it’s interesting to note how physical attacks on them (politically motivated or otherwise) are often sternly punished, and claims of ignorance about the significance of these sites met with incredulity.

Photographs can be used to transmute temporal as well as spatial distance. As important national events fade into the past, and direct experience of them is lost, photographs act as a highly effective substitute for personal memory. Written accounts of an event like the First World War can easily seem abstract and impersonal, but photographs of mud filled trenches and shell shocked soldiers can act as powerful surrogates for memory, instilling a much more instinctive sense of the horror of these events than a written historical account. Given the centrality of photography in both the perpetration and memorial of the holocaust I think it will be interesting to see how the media maybe becomes more important for a the national memory of states like Israel as the number of survivors becomes fewer.

In some nation states, typically authoritarian ones with strong leadership cults, this iconographic canon can also extend to living people. The leader becomes a sort of paternal figure, guiding the nation, and their individual exploits may similarly become reflections of the nation’s own self-image and aspirations. In Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, the portraits of the Emperor Franz Joseph that appear across the multi-national (and yet still in some respects mono-national) Hapsburg Empire are implied to be all that really holds it together, even moreso than the elderly emperor himself. Russia is a relevant contemporary example, where Vladmir Putin’s personality cult often seems closely entwined with Russian national self-image. Putin’s action man persona is often reinforced through staged photographs which show him engaged in activities ranging from shooting tigers and swimming in Siberian rivers, to making pottery and feeding goats.

It’s worth noting that much of the theory around nationalism and mass media, like Anderson’s key text Imagined Communities, is getting quite long in the tooth, either predating the internet or at least predating the current complexities of social media and online image use. There is probably a new case to be made for the way these new technologies and behaviours have impacted the use of photographs as part of the national project (perhaps someone has already made it and I’m just not aware). For example the internet offers a good environment for subverting certain forms of national imagery, as evidenced by irony laden sites like Putin Taming The World. Equally it can be a means to promote alternative historical narratives which have often sidelined by officially sanctioned national histories, for example that of the Armenian Genocide.

The internet can of course be a breeding ground for the most extreme nationalist views, but perhaps in time it could foster a more anti-national, or transnational world, with the geographic boundaries of nations  overcome by it in the same way that newspapers once overcame the geographic distances within those same states. The fact that online imagery allows us to witness events in Crimea in near real times seems to give us a sense of community and solidarity with people there that is hard to imagine existing across such great distances in the past. If we recognise and accept Anderson’s notion of an imagined community, and concede it can only be realised through the intermediaries like the mass media, perhaps there is a possibility that in time the same intermediaries might foster the sense that we are all part of a single, global, imagined community.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography