In altering photos from the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, the National Archives engaged in the very opposite of what it had been created to do: forge a clear and accurate historical record.
Last month, a photographer named Ellen Shub died, near Boston, at the age of seventy-three. I had got to know Shub in the nineteen-eighties, when I worked for gay and lesbian publications. At that time, she was already well known as a chronicler of social protest—a role that she continued to perform up until she unexpectedly fell ill, just weeks before she died. Many of her pictures were compositionally similar—frontal, focussed on one person and one sign. In 1975, she took a picture of a woman holding a placard that said “no more back room back alley abortions.” In 1981, at a Boston rally for the Equal Rights Amendment, she photographed a woman who held a sign on which she had pasted “59c”—the amount of money, it was said, that a woman made for every dollar earned by a man. In 2004, when the Republican National Convention was held in New York, Shub took a picture of a protester with a large sheet of cardboard printed with the words “ ‘dissent is the highest form of patriotism’ —thomas jefferson.” In 2014, at a rally in Boston, she photographed a young man holding one that said “#icantbreathe.” There were many more, and, in each case, the message of the photograph was the message of the sign.
The war against terrorism has evolved into a war of ideas and propaganda, a struggle for hearts and minds fought on television and the Internet. On those fronts, al-Qaeda’s voice has grown much more powerful in recent years. Taking advantage of new technology and mistakes by its adversaries, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has built an increasingly prolific propaganda operation, enabling it to communicate constantly, securely and in numerous languages with loyalists and potential recruits worldwide.
Every three or four days, on average, a new video or audio from one of al-Qaeda’s commanders is released online by as-Sahab, the terrorist network’s in-house propaganda studio. Even as its masters dodge a global manhunt, as-Sahab produces documentary-quality films, iPod files and cellphone videos. Last year it released 97 original videos, a sixfold increase from 2005. (As-Sahab means “the clouds” in Arabic, a reference to the skyscraping mountain peaks of Afghanistan.)