Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

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Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.

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These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.

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But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.

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[Photo from philstar.com]

 

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