The Power of Imagery

Student Project

Persuasive propaganda requires powerful imagery. UVA students worked with photographer Marc Erwin Babej to create their own propaganda-like images.

As part of the Transatlantic Partnership on Memory, Responsibility & Transformation, fellow and photographer Marc Erwin Babej worked with students of Manuela Achilles' course titled "Neighbors and Enemies in Modern Germany" to create persuasive images.

Marc came to photography via a background in history and journalism. He uses images to explore and question historical narratives. His works force viewers to ask uncomfortable questions: Who are the ones shaping historical narratives? Why are the perpetrators of historical atrocities often the ones who leave the most enduring mark on national identity and culture, while the victims’ perspectives are erased? How can students of history use art to better understand the darker chapters of national memory and identity? 

During his fellowship, Marc worked with UVA students to analyze these questions in two of his major photographic projects: Mischlinge and Unser Afrika.

Defining "Germaness"?

The project Mischlinge (“Mongrels”) presents images in the style of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl is well known for her technical innovation and the large-scale productions of propaganda films and imagery during the Nazi era. The most famous example is the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, which documented the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg.

Bild 146-1988-106-29: "Riefenstahl filming a difficult scene with the help of two assistants, 1936" from
Marc uses this same propagandistic style to subvert Nazi claims of racial superiority. In his series, cast members are photographed next to Nazi-era architecture in the style of Riefenstahl. 

For Marc, the personal significance of this work centers on a simple question: Who is German?

"Back then," it was the existential question. I grew up in a family history that abounds with examples. For my great-grand uncle, Siegfried Taub, Secretary-General of the German Social Democratic Party in the Czechoslovak Republic, the answer to this question was a one–way ticket into an exile from which he would never return. Even before the Nazi invasion of what later became the “Reich Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia,” Nazi propaganda smeared him as "Jewish swine Taub.“

For Siegfried’s nephew, my grandfather Erwin, the answer to this question meant a death sentence. For my grandmother and my mother, it meant widowhood and childhood in Theresienstadt.

Marc’s photographs ask the viewer this same question, "Who is German?", while using Riefenstahl’s own imagery to subvert Nazi notions of "Germanness." Captions on each photo show the DNA results of individual cast members, exposing the absurdity of racial purityAs Marc explains, "the tests showed that all cast members of Mischlinge live up to their name: Not one comes from only one part of the world; almost no one matches the Nazi ideal of the "Nordic man;“ no two have identical origins; many have roots from outside Europe."

Germany's Colonial History

Marc also showed students his upcoming work, Unser Afrika ("Our Africa"). The series sheds light on Germany's colonial past – a dark chapter of Germany history that is often neglected in favor of historical reckonings with the Holocaust. His images illustrate the colonists’ notions of racial superiority, implicitly linking this narrative with the later Nazi ideology. The work premieres in June 2018 in Hamburg, Germany.

From the series "Unser Afrika" ("Our Africa")

In describing the work, Marc writes that it is "a symbolic joining of arts, science and government in recognition of the responsibility of Germany’s colonial past."

Creating Propaganda in the Digital Age

Students discussed the narrative mechanisms at work in Marc’s pieces and in  Nazi and colonial era propaganda. They implicitly critiqued these works to understand why these images are so persuasive. To fully understand what makes propaganda effective, and to better recognize such images in daily life, students were then tasked with creating their own marketing or propaganda images.

Their task was to create images that motivate an audience to act or react. In many cases, these images trigger an emotional response. Below is a selection of students' projects.

What Happened to Privacy?

By Wilson, Walker, Fitz, and Jack 

What Happened to Privacy?

The work aims to motivate Facebook users to acknowledge the privacy dangers they face. It is intended to be an advertisement featured on Facebook or other mediums of social media. Specifically, the artwork should intentionally scare and encourage Facebook users to review their privacy settings in order to ensure that Facebook cannot access their private data. It is especially targeting a teenage audience, because the group believes that teenagers are more likely to bypass important security measures to protect their data and privacy.  

Which Side Are You On?

By Gabrielle, Chris, Catie, and Ryann

Which Side Are You On?

This Tweet aims to inspire Millennials to share the message and attend an event that promotes unity and inclusion. In the first picture, a mass of white men rally in front of the Rotunda. The black and white Confederate flag over the rally is inteaded to demonstrate that white supremacists are attempting to separate the races of society into binary categories of black and white, spreading exclusion and hate. This image is contrasted with that of the vigil, covered by an American flag in full color. The contrast of these images helps separates the two movements in viewers’ minds. It puts white supremacists in the dark, as in the past, and the counter-protesters in the light, representing the future. The intent is to prove that the side of inclusion and equality is superior to the other. 

Save the American Dream

By Ryan, Melissa, and John 
Save the American Dream

This ad seeks to motivate young college students to fight back against racism and injustice in the United States and to redefine the American Dream for themselves. The “American Dream” suggests that immigrants can find a tolerant and diverse country here, one that provides an opportunity for citizens to do better than the generation before them. This dream, along with the freedoms that American citizens fought for, is the foundation of our United States. But is it possible anymore? The image challenges the concept that America is a land of diversity. It takes the notion of the United States as a patchwork quilt of diversity, and instead shows the ugly side of how resistance to diversity manifests in society: through hatred and violence. It imposes pictures depicting the horrors of today’s “American Dream” onto a map of the United States, challenging what the map traditionally represents. By displaying jarring photos of violence and persecution, it seeks to overwhelm the viewer’s senses and emotions to urge them to take action.

Save The American Dream (individualized variation)

By Ryan

Save the American Dream (individual variation)

This variation of the original ad also targets young Americans but with a slightly different message. The inclusion of a gray-scale flag emphasizes the complicated nature of the world and US society. Swapping the red and white stripes of the American flag with a black and white image complicates the simplicity of American values like freedom and liberty. That these black and white stripes merge into gray shows that we don’t live in a black and white world where everything is a textbook straight answer. Instead, the US is made of up of human beings, and because of that, there is always a gray zone.