Images that don't fit official history

Despots distort their record with photography, but the truth will out

In "Underexposed," Colin Jacobson has put together a collection of images from the Hulton Archive to create an ode to photojournalism in the 20th century and the forces that distorted it. His selections present the expected share of manipulated images used by repressive governments as propaganda. However, the book provides insight into other ways of "manipulating" information:

• Journalists working in collaboration with the powers that be to promote political or social agendas.

• Censorship imposed for patriotic or moral reasons.

• Self-censorship exercised in the name of personal or institutional safety.

What becomes clear in "Underexposed," published by Vision On ($50), is that censorship is a complex phenomenon with many faces. Jacobson debunks some of the greatest iconic images of the century, such as Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War image of a soldier at the moment of death. He claims it was posed. And he shows how Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" was carefully composed to convey a specific political message of despair.

He also makes the point that some practices do not change. From the Crimean war in the 1850s to the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s, governments and news media have worked in tandem to "sanitize" the portrayal of events to control public reaction.

The most interesting aspect of this book is its implication that censorship happens at the individual level as well. Photojournalists are presented with situations where they must make life-changing decisions. Is the journalist a participant? Is it the photographer's duty to change the outcome of an event by becoming a protagonist? Jacobson best addresses this issue in the 1971 photos of the Bangladesh War of Independence when authorities started publicly executing prisoners in what closely resembled a media event.

As one goes through the book, it becomes clear that images cannot be kept from the public forever. In some cases, these images, produced for the private use of the power establishment, surfaced years later to haunt the perpetrators of atrocities. The best example is the collection of individual portraits of numbered prisoners taken by the Khmer Rouge, as if constructing a catalog of death.

But ultimately, "Underexposed" suffers an identity crisis. It's too harsh for its coffee-table presentation, but too didactic and shallow for an exposé on such an important and complex subject. Nevertheless, it is a book that will capture readers' attention and serve as a starting point for a more in-depth examination.

Alfredo Sosa is the Monitor's feature photography editor.

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