Symbolism and its unexpected use in photography and politics

by Cecilie Smith Oedegaard

In our first guest lecture Jonathan Blaustein brought up the importance of symbolism and its effective use in order to imbue meaning in a photograph. The discussion intrigued me and I decided to research the topic further.

First of all, what is a symbol? A symbol is a simplified image (an object, shape, or design) that usually because of certain associations in a viewer’s mind, represents a more complex idea or system. Symbolism provides the photographer with an opportunity to tap into a rich vein of visual clues and access points that link to larger and more complex processes. It can be a powerful aid in photography.

Symbols imply different things in different cultures and the response to symbolism therefore depends to a great extent on the cultural training of the viewer.  Factors such as personal experiences, economic status, gender, psychological state, political and religious beliefs also play into viewer’s interpretation. There are however symbols that are nearly universal. For example water suggests birth, purification and rejuvenation. The house represents the self. A circle indicates unity and eternity. German psychologist Carl Jung called these images ’’Archetypes’’. They represent universal patterns of human thought that reside in our collective unconscious.

Traditional symbols have been woven into the visual arts for thousands of years. While the symbol remains the same, the context and meaning can change according to the group using it. The swastika is a good example of how this can happen. It has been used as an ornament by the American Indians since prehistoric times, and has appeared as a symbol through the old world of China, Crete, Egypt, and Persia. In the twentieth century, it’s meaning was totally perverted, from one of well-being to that of death, when the German Nazi Party adopted it as the official emblem of the Third Reich.

We’re all familiar with use of symbolism by the advertising industry in order to sell products. What did however surprise me as I was doing my research was the relationship of politics with visual art and its symbolic meaning. According to writer Kelly Grovier there seems to be quite a deliberate orchestration of world leaders’ photoshoots next to art work due to their symbolic meaning. She further notes in an article written for the BBC, that if we want to really understand what our world leaders are up to we should look at the paintings that hang behind them at press conferences and summit meetings.

In February 2016 President Obama held a press-conference reasserting his intention of closing the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His early efforts to shut down the centre had been met with resistance from those who argue that the move would signal to Islamists that America’s will to defeat jihadist terror was diminishing. Faced with allegations of weakness, Obama’s decision to hold a press-conference next to a portrait of Theodore Rooseveldt was hardly accidental. By placing himself visually alongside a heroic portrait of the galloping leader, who is credited with the credo “speak softly and carry a big stick”, Obama hoped to bask in the reflected testosterone of America’s most macho president.

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George W Bush is another president who has been involved in manipulation of aesthetics in order to control public opinion. In February 2003 when the United States was pressing the case for war against Iraq in the United Nations, officials installed a blue curtain across a tapestry that hangs near the entrance-way of the Security Council, in the very spot where US State Department Officials are filmed by television crews. The work that was deemed too dangerous to be transmitted into the living room of viewers while Bush officials lobbied for war, was a large tapestry version of Pablo Picasso’s anti-fascist masterpiece Guernica – an 11ft (3.4 m) wide painting that shudders with the horrors of the aerial bombardment in 1937 of an ancient Basque town. The original oil-on-canvas work was on display in New York throughout the violent protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and was regarded by many as a painting whose spirit conflicted with the aggressiveness of US foreign policy. Thirty years later, Guernica’s chaos of howling horse heads and ravaged limbs was regarded as too risky a backdrop against which to be photographed lobbying for war.


I would argue that it takes a whole lot of cultural education and knowledge about these particular art pieces to fully read these messages from the resulting press photos and videos. However I guess that within presidential politics there isn’t room for taking risks and whatever can be done to sway public opinion will we done.

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