Modified Photos and Propaganda

Wenzhou-based journalist Zhang Xiang’ou is taking advantage of the current concern over manipulated photos online to examine the fine line between reporting and propaganda in China.

Chinese photographers have long been manipulating the “truth” as they try to fill their dual rolls as reporters and propaganda creators at the same time, Xiang’ou points out. He examines several well-known photos by Sha Fei and notes that they are obviously staged. Danwei translates Xiang’ou’s blog into English.

So I asked Sha Fei’s daughter, Wang Yan, and senior members of the photography community to determine the “true face” of the photographs, and the response was all negative—they were not taken at the scene.

So then they were staged! I was taken aback—how could the famous Sha Fei stage his photographs? This wasn’t something that a journalist ought to do! But now I understand why: the images that Sha Fei shot were not all news photos that reflected the course of the war; they were propaganda photos meant to promote the Eighth Route Army’s war against the Japanese to the outside world. Even though Sha Fei was a photojournalist, when he shot these propaganda photos, he was just a propaganda photographer.

Xiang’ou then looks at his history of a reporter trying to balance writing critical articles with necessary propaganda pieces as a way of understanding why there are so many fake photos.

As someone who’s also in the news profession, I deeply understand the difficulties you face—propaganda photographs must be taken, after all. But this is the heart of the problem: stage them if you have to, shoot what you need to, do them up right—but always remember: they’re just propaganda photos! You want to enter them into some news award competition? They’re no different from Edison Chen’s sex photos that are on the Internet! In both cases, something that should not have seen the light of day has been forced out under the sun. Edison may have been framed, but you’ve done this to yourselves.

We ought to be understanding and forgiving of Sha Fei, working as he was in those difficult historical conditions. But as for today’s muddleheads, we should not permit them to profit in troubled times. We must be firm in our insistence that people like Qiu Yan and Zhang Liang, who shamelessly fabricated “harmonious SARS” and “harmonious bird flu” photos, are not to be tolerated. For they stand in front of generation after generation of descendants, and we must not let them hand down a heritage of shame.

February 26, 2008 3:20 PM
Categories: Culture & the Arts