20th July 2024

The Power of Images

Julius Caesar was the man who made himself the king of the Roman Republic (not the empire). Having no son, he considered Octavian as his natural successor. Octavian, becoming the Emperor Augustus of the Roman Empire, started something ‘genius’; he discovered the power of images.

He knew that physically he could not be everywhere in the empire and enter every household of his subjects, the Roman citizens. But he had to be everywhere and be in every household. He had to be seen and felt.

He wanted to be a divine figure and be in the minds of his citizens to create his imperial hegemony and eliminate all questions about his rightful and divine place as the emperor.

That’s how he would convince his soldiers to die for him and Roman citizens to pay their taxes.

He discovered propaganda using images.

He introduced the minting of gold and silver coins with images on them. On one side his face as a divine figure and on the other side the figures of God Mars and goddess Venus.

He was not able to travel to every corner of his empire but these coins, with his images on them, could. Trade travelled to every corner of the Roman land, as well to lands of his enemies and his allies.

He was not able to shake hands with each and every citizen, but his coins were in the palms of everyone. Everyone that mattered.

Not all citizens could read and write but an image could tell a thousand lies and myths.

He was the man of imagery and symbolism for propaganda. Hitler and Mussolini’s propaganda machines used images.

The great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, in his brilliant play, a political critic of Stalinism, “Did Ivan Ivanovic Exist or Not?” examined the horrors of the Stalin era and his control over the people.

In the play, on every office wall hangs the portrait of the main character, the powerful Ivan Ivanovic, looking down on his people, as the great leader who had eyes everywhere.

Modern media, states, businesses and organizations, all use imagery to spread their message.

What is the image that comes to your mind with each of these words?

Criminal, Terrorist, Asylum Seeker or Refugee, Gypsy, Immigrant

I bet the following people were not the first images that came to your mind.

Criminal: Mahatma Gandhi, James Connolly

Terrorist: Nelson Mandela.

Asylum Seekers or Refugee: Sitting Bull, Julian Assange, Trotsky, Marlene Dietrich.

Gypsy: Charles Chaplin, Michael Caine.

Immigrant: Sigmund Freud, Pablo Neruda, the entire white population of the United States of America.

We are bombarded with images and whether we pay any attention to them or not, images are a very significant part of any propaganda machine, and they can become part of our memory.

Remember the Roma children that were forcibly taken from their families. This was over ‘concerns’ that the adults they were staying with were not their biological families. Why the concern? Because they looked different. Different to what/who? Different to what the Roma should look like. The Irish state removed them from their family only to discover that they were in fact the biological children of their parents.

The racist ideas are put into the minds of people via images and subtexts attached to these – at least that is one of the means. This is, how we are expected to have a conviction of ‘what we believe must be the truth’. For example, the Roma people cannot have blue eyes and blond hair – because our mental image says so – therefore any child with such features must be a non-Roma child; and therefore, because we also saw images of Roma people as thieves (mostly in movies), these children must be stolen from their families.

Now, bring in the Gardai, the HSE, the courts, the media, and the racist commentary, all acting out a well-choreographed role; and you have a crime scene of prejudice and mental images. This organized prejudice is part of what we call institutionalised racism.  The images are fake but the politics that uses these images is real, so real that it can hurt a small child.


A video of two busses arriving with black men on them can be a powerful image to use for the propaganda that asylum seekers are flooding Ireland and our communities.

A news reports that shows a social welfare office with camera focusing on black men can turn into a ‘fact’ in our minds: Migrants suck our social welfare dry.

Let’s examine a slice of history of manufactured and false reality and the racial profiling through images. In other words, the look of a person and the features of a race, and how these were used in the case of racism against Irish immigrants in the U.S and Britain.

A reminder from the past. Don’t think that these disgustingly racist material are produced by a few mad men or women. These were the outputs of mainstream media, states and political forces.

This one is titled “The Workingman’s Burden” and depicts “a gleeful Irish peasant carrying his Famine relief money while riding on the back of an exhausted English laborer.”

This cartoon, titled “Two Forces,” shows a figure representing Britain protecting a weeping, frightened woman, representing Ireland, from a rampaging Irishman; notice his hat says “anarchy.”

This image, found at the University College Cork website, depicts Daniel O’Connell, a leader of the Irish land reform movement, as an “ogre.” He is ladling poor Irish peasants out of a pot labelled “agitation soup,” and, presumably, cheating them out of money in the guise of helping them.

Here we see the Irish depicted as a Frankensteinian monster in a cartoon that ran in Punch in 1882 (image found at the website for a course at the University of St. Andrews)

Here an ape-like Irish man, again drunk, sits on a powder keg, presumably threatening the entire country

Published in 1882 (and found at the Michigan State University Museum website), is called “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House”. It shows an Irish immigrant causing a commotion while other immigrants (notice the beds are labeled Russian, German, Negro, etc.) try to sleep. The smaller caption under the title says, “Look here, you, everybody else is quiet and peaceable, and you’re all the time a-kicking up a row!”

This illustration ran in Harper’s Weekly magazine. Notice how the Irish are depicted as more similar to “Negros” than to “Anglo Teutonic” individuals, and both the Irish and Africans are caricatured as ape-like. It could also be useful for a discussion of scientific racism.

1850s cartoon showing a “poor house” of immigrants from Ireland.

This cartoon printed in 1889, stereotypes the Irish as unmixable in America’s melting pot.

Cartoons for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly featured cartoons by Thomas Nast and depicted Irish immigrants as ape-like barbarians prone to lawlessness, laziness and drunkenness. “St. Patrick’s Day, 1867…Rum, Blood, The Day We Celebrate” shows a riot with policemen and ape-like Irishmen.

A cartoon from the 1850s by the “Know-Nothings” accusing the Irish and German immigrants of negatively affecting an election.


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