index.html  Opacity in transparency: A decade of photography and
Political communication in Argentina (1999-2010)



Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires







The purpose of this work has been the analysis of the relationship between different types of graphical political discourse and the political scenario over the last ten years in Argentina, while attempting to make a contribution to the study of political discourse in context. The sample of pictures analyzed include several photographs used in campaign advertising (the electoral struggle for the presidency in 1999 and 2007, and that for legislative seats in 2005) and in the political news sections of two of the largest newspapers in Argentina, Clarín and La Nación (1999-2001, 2005 and 2007).





When used together, the words communication and politics have multiple meanings, all of them related to different ideas of what communication and politics are, and what they imply when used together. As Sergio Caletti (2001) argues, the usual approach to the field in mass communication research gives an idea of politics as apparatus and communication as technology. Such an approach supports the more instrumental notion of communication, conceived as strategy, and leads to two extreme positions (but based on the same premises) about their incidence in the political field. On the one hand, some researchers emphasize the ‘spectacularization’ of politics, which thus loses its rationality. On the other hand, there are some authors who believe in the potential of realizing the Internet permanent assembly utopia.  


Adopting a different position, this work advocates the idea of communication as condition of possibility for politics, in two ways: firstly, because politics entails a kind of social relationship essentially based on the sharing of socially recognizable meanings, by means of the word and the action -namely, on communication. Secondly, because it is communication that allows “the common” as a constitutive attribute of politics (see Caletti, Op. Cit.).


The public sphere articulates par excellence politics and communication. Although not everything in politics nor all in communication occur in public space, communication is embedded within politics just as much as politics is embedded in communication.  This implies also that any society becomes visible for itself –namely, public- by the dominant technical media that the social relationships produced for its own representation.  Based on these premises, the general aim of this work was to analyze the relationships between the use of pictures in graphic political discourse and their contexts of meaning in the last ten years in Argentina.


The categories of analysis employed belong to the Socio-semiotics theoretical and methodological frame. The empirical referent is constituted by a sample of different sorts of pictures used in graphic political discourse:


·         A selection of posters of the electoral campaigns of the period (for President in 1999 and 2007, and for legislative positions in 2005). The pictures used there are usually designed and chosen by campaign teams of each candidate as part of his/her electoral strategy.       

·         A selection of photographs published in the political news section of two largest circulated Argentinean newspapers (1999-2001, 2005 and 2007). In this case, pictures are a significant part of the informative discourse of that media.  



The ‘Illfare’ State


Trying to give a synthesis of Argentinean political life in the last ten years is not easy. Maybe a fact is enough to show its complexity: there were seven Presidents of the Republic between 1999-2005, even though the Constitution establishes a four year term length. In other words, seven presidents where there should have been only three.    


The general background of the decade was a widespread disappointment with democracy presumably caused by the critical consequences of neoliberal politics and subsequent State retraction led by the government of Carlos Menem and followed also by his successor Fernando de la Rúa. An increasing discredit about politicians ended in the December 2001 riots, a period of civil uprising known as “cacerolazo” (pot banding), and was synthesized by the slogan “politicians go home”. The institutional crisis caused the dismission of De la Rúa and a vertiginous succession of presidents until the transitional period conducted by Eduardo Duhalde between 2002-2003. After the 2003 elections, Néstor Kirchner assumed the Presidency of the Country, followed by his wife Cristina Fernández (since 2007 and continues).

It is necessary to mention that the general disappointment with both politics and politicians grown during the decade of the nineties clearly contrasted with previous moments of political life in Argentina. After the end of the last dictatorial government in 1983, the return to democracy in 1983 was accompanied by a generalized euphoria and hope expressed in a famous statement of president Raúl Alfonsín: “with democracy, you can cure, you can feed and you can educate.”   


Concurrently with these changes in the political life of the country, there were significant transformations in the relationship between politics, mass media and citizens-electors. A number of authors have drawn attention to a series of items that influence political publicity (in the double sense of public domain and attention-getting devises through advertising). In his book Memorias de la Comunicación (1997), Héctor Schmucler notes that there is a misconception that assimilates democracy and market. We live in a time when the making of politics seems to be an engineering operation that involves increasing mercantilization of political activity conducted by “market-like” specialists. Choosing a candidate seems thus to be selling rather than voting. 


As Verón (2001) suggested, in postindustrial societies there was a process of mediatization, by which social practices as institutional work, decision making, more or less ritualized behaviors, and particularly, State apparatus are transformed because of the media, rather than merely be reflected by them. Therefore, the media field cannot be disregarded as a condition of possibility for political discourse. 




A Rhetoric of the “Boring”


An analysis of the candidates graphic advertising in times of electoral struggle gives evidence of the mercantilization of public life. 


As mentioned above, 1999 presidential election took place in a context of a generalized disillusion with the consequences of Carlos Menem’s neo-liberal politics. Over that background, two of the main opposition parties (Unión Cívica Radical and FREPASO[i]) formed a coalition named “Alianza” (Alliance), proposing Fernando De la Rúa for president and Carlos Alvarez for vice-president. Menawhile, the Peronist party went with the Eduardo Duhalde and Ramón Ortega presidential ticket.  


Both parties tried to differentiate themselves from the semantic field associated with the discredited Menem. The Alianza campaign team was led by a couple of publicists, Ramiro Agulla and Carlos Baccetti. With a remarkable creativity, they pointed to turn some “weaknesses” of De la Rúa into possible “strengths”.


In one of the posters there could be seen a three quarter profile portrait of the candidate looking out off-screen. Below, the words “President De la Rúa” (fig. 1). Comparing to a more traditional picture composition (the candidate in a frontal close up, looking at the camera), this posters implied an innovation. The glance looking out off-screen goes with the “third person” picture composition (Péninou, 1982).


As the picture cannot say “I”, the place of the speaker is occupied by the person/subject who looks towards the camera, claiming for the observer’s attention.

In the poster considered, the eyes of De la Rúa were looking to the “non-pictured”, maybe the future, his plans or, in words of R. Barthes (1994), “a beautiful dream”. Instead of being looking for the voter’s agreement, his aim seemed to be beyond the electoral process. Barthes considered the pose as a way to focus connotative meaning upon a photograph. Whereas De la Rúa was popularly known as a “boring”[ii], insipid man, that pose tried to attach some positive connotative meanings to his person, such as seriousness, calmness, faith in the future, being a dreamer. In addition, the “boringness” of De la Rúa appeared as value in comparison to Carlos Menem’s high media profile, the continuous scandals about his private life and his relationship with  local star-system. 


Moreover, the reversion of the usual formula –e.g. “De la Rúa for President”- has a significant meaning effect. By saying “President De la Rúa”, the President’s investiture is discursively taken for granted. The assertive nature, rather than potential of the slogan reinforces connotative meanings of seriousness, firmness, resoluteness, anticipation of future.


Other poster belonging to Alianza’s graphic campaign showed in a close up part of the arms and hands of a man and a woman (fig. 2). The appeal to the observer’s knowledge allowed to complete the visual synecdoche: those where the arms and hands of Fernando De la Rúa and Graciela Fernández Meijide (Alianza´s candidates for President and Governor of Buenos Aires Province). Both hands together formed the shape of an “A”, in a conventional triumphal gesture, over the Alianza’s logotype, an A formed with two Argentinian flag ribbons. The slogan stated: “Alianza. There are more of us”, where “us” is a case of inclusive “we”. The superimposed metonymic representation of the arms and the A reinforced both semantic and morphological features –political coalition, consensus, joint.  


The hands came into a suggesting rhetoric reinforcement with the linguistic anchorage (Barthes, 1972): “There are more of us” (men and women, UCR and FREPASO). And, again, the appeal to the observer’s knowledge, in a overlapped reference to the characteristic gesture of Raúl Alfonsín, the great UCR leader.  The equalizing effect of the inclusive “we” (“us” in the slogan) attempts to make potential destinataires –workers, business people, academics, youngster and the aged- feel they are all in the same boat (see Arfuch, 1987).


Also in the Peronist Party of Menem some differentiation strategies were performed. A poster showed the candidates Eduardo Duhalde and Ramón Ortega, together, looking at the camera/observer, smiling. By means of the pose and other composition elements, common features of the candidates were stressed.


An analysis of the slogan (“The best change”) shows how presuppositions and assumptions (Ducrot, 1986) operate: on the one hand, the “change” presupposes a previous status quo which is precisely going to be changed. On the other hand, by qualifying that change as “the best” it is assumed the existence of other possible changes.


During the electoral campaign for legislative positions of 2005, posters in the public space evidence the changes such as the continuities with the previous contends.

Firstly, it is necessary to say that together with the resignation of De la Rúa came the dismissal of the Alianza. The FREPASO practically disappeared and the UCR only reached a 7% of the votes in 2005 legislative election. 


President Néstor Kirchner, belonging initially to the Peronist Party, formed his own coalition, named “Frente para la Victoria” and contended with Eduardo Duhalde. Both Kirchner and Duhalde wives took a relevant role on that struggle, feeding the myth of the Peronist Couple: Juan Domingo and Eva Perón, although it wasn’t a central campaign strategy. Posters and graphic advertisings of Kirchner couple gave a great leadership to the wife, Cristina Fernández. In a poster displayed in the fifth electoral section of Buenos Aires Province Cristina appeared in a middle close up, wearing a soft colored suit, looking at the camera and outlining a slight smile. Beside her, one on each side, the first candidate for senator of that electoral section and the first candidate for city counselor. Slightly advanced, Cristina seemed to be introducing the other candidates. Slightly behind, the other candidates seemed to be upholding Cristina. The formula was repeated in all the electoral sections, looking for give a strong association of the local candidates with Cristina Fernández and his husband, President Kirchner. One of the more used slogans was “Let’s go with Kirchner”. The analysis of inclusive “we” above mentioned is useful again here. In addition, there is an appeal to give impulse, to keep on working.   


Whereas the Chiche Duhalde campaign strategy was characterized almost by a complete absence of her face. Posters showed a plain colored background with a large font inscription: “Chiche is from here”, giving an evident assumption because of the “foreignness” of the Kirchners (who were from the Patagonian Province of Santa Cruz); or “We want Chiche”, use of inclusive “we”. The reference to a shared space and a central figure was present in both campaigns.    


The assumed reference to Kirchner’s figure was also evident in the UCR campaign. “Equilibrim in the Senate” was the slogan that accompanied the portrait of Luis Brandoni, candidate for senator contending with Cristina Fernández and Chiche Duhalde, proposing a power balance in the occupation of legislative positions. None of the discursive strategies resorted to a political program or platform exposure, but suggested an agreement based merely on going “with” or “against” somebody.



Snapshots of Power  


Another important field for using pictures in political discourse is the newspaper’s pages. Photographs published in the political news section of two of the largest circulated Argentinean newspapers were specially considered.


Established in 1870, La Nación is one of the oldest Argentinean newspapers. Since its beginnings it had a traditional conservative profile. Addressed to political and economic elites of the country and an upper middle class reader, its discourse have always had an “illuminated” and impartial style, as a neutral observer of facts. (Brenca y Lacroix, 1982; Sidicaro, 1993).  Clarín appeared for the first time in 1945, and found its main public within middle class readers, and reached some popular sectors by means of the “classified ads”. It was consolidated during the decades of 1950 and 1960, linked with developmentalist political groups (Verbitsky, 2002). Its editorial line moved behind the unstable Argentinean middle class, in a clearly pragmatic way focused in the national political life. In the beginnings of Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, the Journal supported him clearly, but in the present he and his wife maintain a heated confrontation involving legal struggle and criminal charges.   


A corpus of more than fifty pictures was analyzed in order to recognize the recurring features of photographs usage in the Journals’ politics news section. They can be synthesized as follows:

§  Published photographs frequently showed a lack of enunciation control by portrayed politicians. This feature is mainly based on: 1) the preponderance of “third person” rather than “first person” picture composition; and 2) an apparently unintentional gestuality as a trigger of photograph connotative meanings. 

§  The “third person” picture composition caused an “erasing” of visual enunciative marks and an apparent concealment of photographic device. This feature, associated with a connotation of movement and camera high/low angles, produced a “spy-ship  effect”. 

·         Combination of mentioned features reinforced the following meanings: 1) the Journal satirizes and ridicules about politicians in complicity with the reader; 2) politicians are equalized as members of the same “class” or “brotherhood” (not precisely a well-intentioned one).   

·         Relationship between photographs and other elements of journalistic message resembled comic genre. Clarín used ironic and comic epigraphs. La Nación assimilated photographs, vignettes and comic strips by juxtaposition in the same page.     

Whereas dynamic televised or digital images show the continuous real-like appearance of public life, photographs symbolize them by discontinuation. Photographs explicate, elucidate, “read” the selected events.





As Silvia Sigal and Eliseo Verón (1986) argued, politics is not intelligible outside the symbolic order that generates itself. Political representation conceived as the action of making visible and valuable the interest of a social group (Bourdieu, 1993) was the predominant institutional form of the Modern States governments. Later decades of the Twentieth century have shown the crisis of a traditional concept of re-presenting politics from its basis on political parties, State and social class.


The over-imposition of politics, economics, public and media spheres, in addition to the subordinate position of Latin American governments, the effects of neo-liberal political programs and the failure in the realization of collective utopias of ‘70s and ‘80s decades, eroded the basis of the traditional representative political system. Pot banding or Blank protest votes are only one expression of this widespread disappointment. “Punishment votes” or “Voting for the lesser evil” are part of a complex dialogue between social meanings and practices that influence both each other. Choosing a candidate as a commodity belongs to a semantic field simultaneosly reinforced by electors and politicians themselves. Campaign strategies don´t seem to be suggesting something different.


During the current presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, something seems to be changed in the Argentinean political arena. A renewed interest in political discussion, in parliamentary activities and ideological struggle appears. Shall it be part of a new political practice or merely be a creative turn of the mercantilization of public life? It is a question that only the photographs of the future shall answer.    






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[i] Sigla of “Frente País Solidario”.

[ii] By the same period there was a TV spot on which De la Rúa appeared saying firmly “They call me boring...”.




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