The banner, the placard, the sticker, the flyer, the poster and the mural are intrinsic to political discourse, a discourse which intensifies in the campaign and specifically in the demonstration. The traditional trades union banner, often intricately woven, is a symbolic materialisation of a movement and a struggle, and has something of the status of a religious icon or battalion flag.
Whether carried in cloth or card or paper, just as on a wall, each artefact is a form of simple messaging, a few words cast as a claim, a comment, a curse, a question. Messages use rhyme and wit, often coupled with an image, perhaps a cartoon, a logo or a photograph, in reaching for effect. The poster or placard is a visual as well as verbal form: the sign is there to be seen, in order that the statement it makes might carry more widely, to more people than a single voice could.
Its combination of word and image, designed to assert and persuade, mean that in form and function the poster has much in common with advertising. Yet the demonstrator’s placard is often no more than a square of cardboard and a stick. It may be idiosyncratic, if not unique, or may be one of thousands cheaply printed and duplicated. The memorable or witty phrase is designed to be remembered and repeated, and may be photographed and replicated in different media, in newsprint, on tv or by phone.
Those who don’t have a poster or placard at a demonstration have a camera. The demonstration is staged with documents, and is documented in turn even as it takes place. Others carry photographs, and will be photographed in turn carrying them.
In the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2001, photographs of those lost were pinned to fences, walls and shopfronts around Ground Zero. They were appeals for information which became a form of documentary evidence, and then ‘an enduring protest, a collective scream’.
They were necessarily photos of time both past and lost, of weddings, barbecues and other family occasions, and at the same time negative images of a future they would never have, which would never exist. In this they have something in common with the photos carried by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina: pictures of the disappeared, images of past lives deployed in the present in the hope of future restitution, reparation and reconciliation.
The media reporting of representative democracy puts many different images of politicians into circulation everyday. Most are devised and taken by news photographers and television camera operators, and selected by newspaper and programme editors.
The significance of Instagram is precisely that it allows for the production and posting of images by or on behalf of political actors themselves. It’s a staging of self, its purpose to make a figure – a person signified by an image – appear before an audience and, often with a caption or some words of commentary, to set it into a specific cognitive frame such that it will be interpreted in a particular way. It also serves as demonstration of a certain form of tech-based social and communicative competence, of a politician’s facility with the contemporary.
Karin Liebhart and Petra Bernhardt’s study of Alexander Van der Bellen’s Presidential election campaign in Austria in 2016 showed how he used Instagram variously as a visual diary, allowing supporters to follow his campaign, and to engage in it in different ways; as a way of making direct contact with voters, including the inevitable selfies; in order to publish background stories of his personal, extra-political activity, at sports events, for example, or with his family; as a way of taking and clarifying a position on different issues; to report the talks and meetings in which he was involved with other politicians, as well as to report and disseminate his other media work.
Talmeyr and Delvau are cit Benjamin, Arcades Project, op cit, p 173, p 179
On the trades union banner: Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon (eds), Disobedient Objects, London: V&A, 2014, p 8; see also Ed Hall, banner maker
SAVE OUR PLACARDS is a project by Mark Teh, Hafiz Nasir, Dolores Galindo, Svein Moxvold, and Guy Atkins
Simon Roberts was interviewed by Diane Smyth for the British Journal of Photography, June 2012, pp 41-49; this quotation appears p 43
Jeremy Harding, ‘Among the gilets jaunes‘, op cit, p 3
John Comino-James, Shout It Loud, Shout It Clear, Photographs 2014-2016, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2017, p 8
Photographs at Ground Zero: Jenny Edkins (2013) ‘Politics and personhood: reflections on the portrait photograph’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 38 (2) 139-154, p 140; carried by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Vikki Bell (2010) ‘On Fernando’s photograph. The biopolitics of apariciónin contemporary Argentina’, Theory, Culture & Society 27 (4) 69–89
Susan Sontag, On Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1979, pp 70-71
Liebhart, K and Bernhardt, P (2017) ‘Political storytelling on Instagram: key aspects of Alexander Van der Bellen’s successful 2016 Presidential election campaign’, Media and Communication 5 (4) 15–25
Roland Barthes, ‘Photography and electoral appeal’, in Barthes, Mythologies, London: Paladin, 1973, pp 98-100