The living spirit within political trauma, as well as liberation from it, is often dominated by visual production. Visual tropes have always been assigned some sort of political meaning – both intentionally and unintentionally – which in turn has affected the interpersonal and collective understandings of the issue or topic. When an image or symbol comes to embody a larger narrative surrounding a complex political issue, a collective response is more easily summoned.
The complexity of image production and circulation if most often joined by political rhetoric, which entails an interesting blend of appeal to affect and calls to reason. The role of the visual in producing and circulating narratives of oppression, abuse, or violence is clear. What is perhaps yet to be explored is the role of image production in successful attempts of liberation. While literary and factual narratives about political phenomena appear dense, intimidating, and uninviting, images are easy to decipher and promote meaningful interaction and interpretation. How can we ensure a positive role of the use of visual tropes in public discourse?
Once given political meaning, images are left with the viewer, in turn assigned responsibility of how they decode or use them. In recent years, connectivity and digital access have expanded the role of the viewer – now active and reactive, capable to impact the circulation and life span of an image. But are we trained to correctly spot misuse or abuse of politically-loaded imagery, and avoid reproducing these misuses?
One example of a potent visual trope is the concept of “the wall.” Almost any visual rendition of a large concrete or stone wall will automatically make the viewer think of the Berlin Wall or Trump’s prophetic wall. Pink Floyd’s 11th album, “The Wall,” uses the image of a wall for its cover to represent the metaphorical wall that the members of the band had built around themselves, due to personal and political trauma. Here the image of the wall has extended into a rather introspective concept yet retaining its political meaning. It has become a sort of visual metaphor which artists, documentarians and photo journalists may use to critique the political symbolism that the image of the wall carries. It becomes a barrier, both literally and metaphorically, that needs to be broken. More importantly, it is a barrier that can be broken.
We begin to visualise and conceptualise liberation and freedom with the image of tearing down these various walls. It´s important to mark the capacity of this concept to build and trigger collective memories and experiences; its repetition becomes, from a tool in the hands of demagogues, for instance, an instrument of community building.
Another telling example is the image of the Islamic veil: it will always carry some political meaning or provoke a politically informed response, even if not aggressive or discriminatory. It touches on the cultural memory of societies, shaped by political rhetoric, news media, and even government policy (France´s burqa ban). It has its own history, built up on several decades of events, dialogues, and definitions, many deployed in the visual realm. The possibility of liberation lies not with the meaning of the veil itself – the debate over it being a mark of oppression is perhaps a step beyond the aim of this text – but with the very act of speaking of it and using visual representations of it. The challenge is to check who leads the narrative of the Islamic veil, how is it used, who stands to gain and who to lose, and how can they be given a genuinely powerful channel to shift the narrative?
If beauty is in the eyes of the proverbial beholder, some could argue that so is truth – at least when truth is relegated to a visual battlefield. Two people can look at the same image and draw separate, if not directly conflicting, conclusions. With high connectivity and digital literacy comes the responsibility of our own participation. We all sign numerous online “user agreements,” but we might need to remember that we´re more than users, and how we interpret, tag, share, or reframe images may have a powerful impact.
Words: Marianna Mukhametzyanova
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu