caption: detail from Dioso Simões’ booklet in Propeller Propaganda. Deisgn by Paulo Arraiano.
When we asked Diogo to collaborate with Propeller Propaganda, there was a lot of possibilities in the air and no pre-established idea of what he could publish. After some options were dropped, the series of photographs we then published was suggested, but an obvious question needed to be addressed, namely: why associate these images with propaganda? It’s not an easy answer. At the time, in a first encountered with them, we made the collective decision to resume the collaboration with Diogo on a latter edition. It was only when we started receiving the other collaborations and a glimpse of the entire content was made possible, that I insisted on his collaboration and made the decision to contact Diogo again. We learn from our mistakes.
Throughout the making of Propeller #3 I found myself justifying the context of this work under the theme Propaganda more often that I would have liked to, but those conversations also made me realize new things about these images and propaganda in general. One of the aspects we pursued when choosing that theme was to establish a dialogue between photographic discourses and political rhetoric, but we also wanted to address the aesthetic qualities that are often present in propaganda and advertisement. The theme is extremely difficult to work with, particularly in the context of a publication like Propeller, where there is no curatorial take over and, ultimately, every author chooses what to publish. In the end, we lacked some work that opened up that dialogue between contemporary photography, propaganda and advertisement and that’s where Diogo’s work comes in and that’s what I’ll be talking about here.
Below are some of the photographs from the series published. They were all created in 2013 at a free party that lasted 5 days, in a field located in the south of Portugal. Is it a documentary project about a group of people and their environment? Probably yes, but the narrative and the visual signs suggest extra layers.
While researching for this edition of Propeller, I summed up a set of characteristics associated with propaganda imagery, namely: repetition, multitude, symmetry, high contrast (color and b&w), dynamics, tension, minimalism, mimesis, symbolism and manipulation (of scale, perspective, etc.). This is not to suggest that in every propaganda image one should recognize all these qualities, but some of them will definitely be present.
Contemporary photography, in general, seems to be headed towards an aesthetic arena that is revealed by a discursive scaffolding, erected on good old semiotics. This also means it is becoming ever more close to advertisement imagery. Contemporary photography also suggests a new relationship between the photographer and the medium. “Apparently”, Man has finally dominated technology and the photographer now effortlessly creates beautiful images about everything and nothing. Heads-up: technology isn’t a barrier anymore, errors have been integrated into the photographic discourse and they function like comas. By putting vague images together, the observer constructs his/her own archetypes. This being about nothing (but also about a blasé lifestyle), it is also about desire and the perpetual quest for something to fill an unidentified void. In sum, photography has fully developed a code of its own. I’m not stating that contemporary photography is now a form of propaganda. However, in its promotion of a way-of-being, resorting to a semiotic code that is becoming intrinsic to those highly exposed to it, it may be reinforcing that blasé lifestyle to a point of no return.
© Diogo Simões, Untitled, 2013. Published in Propeller #3, 2019.
As I see it, Diogo’s photographs are all about contemplating human nature and that’s why his portraits are so delicate and melancholic. The technical choices are key here, as format and lens charter an intimate approach to the life being lived. We’re never seeing neither the highs nor the lows, but he positions us somewhere in-between that spectrum of human emotions. Though we’re not looking at crowds, we recognize their presence, as we see evidence of a communal spirit. Through a selection of images that represent an abstract attraction to a sound system, we feel that attraction. But what force is seducing us? And what danger lies ahead of that “dark void”? What way-of-being is being suggested? What values promoted?
Should we label an artwork as propaganda just because in it we recognize some of the aesthetic qualities of genuine propaganda work? No, but I believe looking at the shared semiotics helps see the broader spectrum of the sort of images that polarizes opinions. Propaganda is about a right and a wrong. Propaganda is also about subliminal messages, about something that is suggested by a manipulative use of signs (index, icon and symbol). In a sense, Diogo’s photograph’s are completely against propaganda: no high contrasts, not many symbols and no moral subjects. No imperative is in play and although the representations depict a certain way-of-being, they aren’t advertising for it. But, on the other hand, they trigger a relation about discursive elements in photography, particularly seduction, appeal and subliminal messages, so there’s some common features.
When doing my phd about authenticity as an aesthetic quality, one of things that became quite clear, towards the end, was that different works, of different fields and quality, can share characteristics, but it’s only when a certain conjunction is formed (out of a certain set of aesthetic qualities) is it possible to recognize authenticity and inauthenticity. That does not mean that we fail to recognize the hints for one or the other. Because I look at photographs from Elad Lassry, Andreas Gursky and Bas Losekoot (to name a few very different examples) and recognize some of the elements of propaganda imagery, that isn’t enough to name them propagandistic. They have no pragmatic function, no aim to move mountains, meaning: their intentionality is clearly present as an aesthetic quality and although it may reference propaganda, it is something else.