Date of Degree
MA (Master of Arts)
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
While the origin of the Arab Spring is well documented in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, the role of press photography in presenting these conflicts is not. Images taken during a conflict often follow a particular narrative that comes to define how we remember a conflict. Considering that Syria is composed of a heterogeneous, ethno-religious mix located at the center of intense regional and international rivalries, understanding the cause of the uprising and the trajectory of the conflict require a careful study of the socio-political history of Syria as well as her regional and international relations.
The aim of this study is to demonstrate how photographs taken of the Syrian Civil War that earned critical acclaim from photographic institutions mythologize the war. Semiotics provides a template for the interpretation of images that may be related to the underlying cultural forces shaping the conflict. Myth provides the forms in the presentation of archetypes in the images that we are able to readily identify so rendering the images relevant and recognizable to the viewer.
The mythologizing of images of war has been used since Frank Capa created an “aesthetic ideal” during the Spanish Civil War and been re-appropriated during subsequent conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries especially the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. This study uses a semiotic and mythological approach to analyze the winning photographs as selected by the National Press Photographers Association, World Press Photographers Association and Pulitzer Prize awarded during the course of the Syrian conflict.
The myths of the “victim” and “underdog” were the two most commonly applied myths to the civilians and the Syrian rebels, who were portrayed as the “lovable losers” in the conflict. These narratives differ from previous depictions of the two previous Gulf Wars in their empathetic depiction of the civilian population and of the rebels.
If maintaining the status quo is one of the enduring functions of myth then the underdog myth perpetuates voyeuristic participation in the conflict without requiring the discomfort of the removal of the Assad regime.
While the origin of the Arab Spring is well documented the role of press photography in presenting these conflicts is not. Photos taken during a conflict often follow a pattern that tells us how we should remember a conflict. Considering that Syria is composed of a many races and religions, each with different international or regional supporters and rivals, understanding the cause of the uprising and its progression requires a careful study of all the groups involved.
The aim of this study is to show how photographs taken of the Syrian Civil War awarded photographic prizes, use traditional tales (myth) to reinterpret aspects of the war. The study of signs (semiotics) simplifies the process by dividing the photographs into the written parts, self-evident parts and what these self-evident parts mean. Myth provides the recognizable stories of people in the images who we are able to readily identify with, allowing us to understand what the photographs mean today.
This study looked at which symbols and tales were used in the winning photographs as selected by the National Press Photographers Association, World Press Photographers Association and Pulitzer Prize awarded during the course of the Syrian conflict.
It found that stories of the “victim” and “underdog” were the two most commonly used tales. If maintaining the status quo is one of the functions of myth then the underdog myth helps further the idea that watching the Syrian conflict from afar is more comfortable than contributing the end of the Assad government.
publicabstract, Civil War, Myth, Syria, War Photography
viii, 80 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 76-80).
Copyright 2015 Gareth Smith
Smith, Gareth Ross. "The myth of the underdog in press photo images of the Syrian Civil War." MA (Master of Arts) thesis, University of Iowa, 2015.