The Visual Imperium

The following is an extract from my chapter, “A Flickr of Militarization: Photographic Regulation, Symbolic Consecration, and the Strategic Communication of ‘Good Intentions’,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 185-279:

One of the possibly more fruitful areas of inquiry to come out of studies of contemporary imperialism could be one that looks at imperialism’s multi-sensory lines of attack, especially when it hooks into domains of consumption and entertainment. This is clearly what the US military is doing by entering Flickr—it does not need Flickr to host its photographs, after all, just like most western defence ministries do not use Flickr and instead rely on their own government’s websites to host images. Social media, however, is where the “mass audiences” allegedly are, and that is where the Pentagon thus wants to be too. This project thus had to do with the seeding of social media by the US military, a topic which has interested me for several years now. But what is the importance of the photograph?

In answering this last question, I will reprise some of what we know about the status of the photograph in western societies such as the US. Photographic images have enjoyed virtually unlimited authority in modern society, furnishing a sense of knowledge gained yet dissociated from personal experience. In this sense, the image-world has increasingly come to substitute for the concrete world of actuality. People in our society have been trained to experience reality as a set of images, as a reflection of appearances. Popular commentary on momentous events, such as 9/11, will frequently resort to this sort of reflection: “it happened like in a movie”. The modern, western image consumer may thus feel that reality can be possessed through images of reality, especially when images are believed to be realistic records. Some have argued that images have become the dominant language of the modern world. As Susan Sontag argued,

“a society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness”. (Sontag, 2005 [1973], p. 119)

Images also enlarge realities, by eliminating the physical distance that separates the viewer from the viewed. Photography has thus played a fundamental role in the westernized globalization of the world, as a technology of capture, at the heart of what I referred to as abduction in the introductory chapter to this volume. It is thus an excellent complement to globalized military capture. It is a useful technology too, coming as it does with a boast of realism that is preserved even now, though not without challenge. In light of the geopolitical facts of US dominance, the Pentagon turns to photography understanding “the power of photographs to legitimize” those facts (Banks, 2001, p. 47). What the Pentagon thus also achieves is a continued Euro-American positioning of sight as primary among the human senses, thus fortifying the imperium of vision—now all the Pentagon has to do is establish the primacy of its vision.

The Pentagon’s photographs appropriate other people’s realities and reframe them to suit the US’ strategic objectives, thus photography acts as a device that controls and instructs. The photographs are part of a pictorial propaganda system—propaganda not because they are “false” in any simple and naïve sense, but because they are primarily conceived as part of a global public relations campaign to sway minds.

But do they sway minds? These photographic media campaigns, such as the Pentagon’s, represent a virtual conquest, but there is little actual danger of these images acting on anyone, and no evidence that anything in the “real world” has been altered by this campaign. At worst, they legitimize and reinforce what has long been established by colonialism, in broad terms, since the US’ own westward expansion, its wars against Indians, and its annexationist ventures in the Caribbean and Pacific. Flickr then simply becomes the newest means of encoding what has long been coded: the civilization-barbarism dichotomy, the focus on women in other societies, the public health campaigns, schooling, contrasts in clothing, gazing at cultural others, the bare feet, the Old West, Thanksgiving, Santa Claus, technological supremacy, and US empire as a gift to humanity. If there is one achievement that US military photographers can properly boast about, it is that they have gained expertise in the visual conventions that have become hegemonic in their culture and national ideology.

However, those photographers and the ones who direct them can also claim to have added or fortified some newer conventions, associated with the more recent ideology of globalization as progressive Americanization. The photographs can thus be “read” as depicting a world rendered frictionless by US movement. Speed is implied by the kinds of vehicles that are featured, while ubiquity is read in the numerous geographic locations of the various exercises and campaigns shown. Technology is the ultimate solution—that is what these images collectively promote. Yet, there is another reality to this US-dominated, globalist imagery—the lack of depth. There is a socio-cultural thinness about these photographs: multiple, discrete pictures, offered in rapid succession and abundant amounts, extricated from local contexts, which can produce an effect of range without depth. Range without depth is akin to the experience of flight. It’s not surprising that a military that relies so heavily on aerial dominance (because life on the ground gets too messy for US forces), should have a supersonic, aerial-experiential view of the world.

Added to the above, there is the paradoxical move of demilitarizing the military’s “militaryness” even as the military militarizes areas that were previously the preserve of civilian agencies (such as foreign aid and diplomacy). The additional paradox is that of the Pentagon pretending to produce depoliticized records of what is a political process of intervention and global dominance, while failing to serve the public by being fully accountable to it and showing the full range of truths of US military action abroad.


Banks, M. (2001). Visual Methods in Social Research. London, UK: Sage.

Sontag, S. (2005 [1973]). On Photography. New York, NY: Rosetta Books.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0