When Propaganda Gets Personal: Part 1 of 2

Frederick Thomas

Frederick Thomas Family Photo

 

This photo surprised me when it found its way to the internet a couple of years ago. It currently resides as the first photo you see when you search "television" in Wikipedia. It surprised me because I thought it was a private photo or at least a photo that was never seen in the U.S. I considered it private because the people in it are my actual immediate family -- my dad, mom, brother and sisters. (I'm doing some last minute in utero television listening in the picture). We Thomases grew up with this photo; multiple copies and variations of it were in the family photo album. To us it was just another picture of the family, albeit it not your usual snapshot.

 

But in the last couple of years I've dug a little deeper and found that this photo is "full of intent" and not private at all. It was taken in late 1958 and included in an article published in Ameryka, the former United States Information Agency (USIA) magazine that was distributed to the Soviet Union, which in turn produced and distributed Soviet Life to the United States. My father and the photographer both worked for the USIA, hence my family's guest appearance. Armed with these facts alone, you might then guess that this nostalgic photo of American television life in the '50s, which is being used across the internet to evoke feelings of simpler times, is actually an original piece of American propaganda. Turns out my family members were human props in a carefully crafted image designed to help the U.S. win the information battle with the Soviets. And to think my mother's concern the day the photo was taken was looking too pregnant.

 

For the record, that is my family's actual house, clothes, sofa, TV, Washington Post and Cokes. But the composition of the image, the photo's elements, are staged: a modern American family, free to watch television, free to read newspapers, free to hang paintings of churches on their walls and free to drink Coca Cola. Those are the elements, nothing more, nothing less. The shot almost looks like a late 50s American Gothic. Somewhere, highly skilled American propagandists of the era decided this picture told the story they wanted the intended audience to receive. The rules of the USIA prohibited its publication in the U.S. Interestingly enough, after its release from the government vaults, for many Americans this photo captures a truth. It seems to capture a simpler time in American history and many people could care less about why it was made.

 

I wonder though what affect this photo -- and thousands of others over decades -- actually had on the Soviets who saw them. Certainly, if you are only used to information fed from a single source -- the government or any single media outlet -- simply seeing or hearing something different can be liberating. But it can also be frightening. Some of the people I've talked to from the former Soviet bloc have told me that even though they knew it was from the U.S. government, the Ameryka magazine was an important source of information for them. Even though they questioned some of its content, they said they learned other things from reading it -- things that fell outside of the propagandist's messages. Things like hairstyles, products, the diversity of faces and just the general way people held themselves. These things told them a lot about the people of America.

 

Lastly, I wonder whether there is a comparable family somewhere in Russia, their image having been used for a similar story in Soviet Life. Undoubtedly there is. Just like the photo of my family, many Soviet-era photos have made their way to the internet. I know that right now there are people looking at classic Soviet-era images and wistfully remembering simpler times. (There's even a whole TV network in Russia devoted to those times.) Again, in another country many people could care less about why these images were made.

 

Fear of information is a fascinating human condition. At its extreme it leads governments to not only limit its spread but try to control every aspect of its meaning -- much like the photo in question and millions of images and stories that governments have manipulated since time began. In the digital age in which we live, information flow is very much now in the hands of all of us. This is a great development. And yet there is also a trend toward national channels aimed at international audiences. Some folks argue that these are just another form of propaganda. In my next piece I'll explore that topic and explain why I think these channels play such an important role in the information age -- particularly in the U.S. Until then, I'm going back into the family photo album and see what else I can find.

 

Published to Huffington Post June 01, 2011