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The Power of Images

I find myself involved with the meaning and significance of vision in our culture now – with the experience of seeing, looking and watching. I want to connect the discussion of technological image culture to the wider debate that has been undertaken recently concerning vision and modernity.

Kevin Robins, Into the Image

Heidegger famously said that ‘the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture’. It is the prerogative of philosophers to be cryptic and Heidegger exercised that right in abundance. But I think today, surrounded as we are by such large quantities of images, what he said is distinctly revealing. The image is worthy of our analytical attention if for no other reason then because it has so significantly colonised our visual landscape. I use that way of describing it deliberately for what I wish to show is that the use of images in the West is part of an interplay between power and Western modernity.

In his book, Colonising Egypt, Timothy Mitchell makes a shrewd observation about Europe’s modern technological age and its colonial misadventure abroad. Taking the world exhibitions of the nineteenth century as his metaphor, he suggests that modern Europe came to relate to the world through objects, that for it the modern came to be linked with representation and the gaze. Mitchell goes into some detail about the recreation of an Egyptian street at the Paris World Exhibition of 1889.

The Egyptian exhibit had been built by the French to represent a winding street in Cairo, made of houses with overhanging upper stories and a mosque like that of Qaitbay. ‘It was intended’, one of the [visiting] Egyptians wrote, ‘to resemble the old aspect of Cairo’. So carefully was this done, he noted, that ‘even the paint on the building was made dirty’.[1]

The Egyptian delegation that was passing through Paris to Sweden on its way to the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists was disgusted by all this and stayed away. This emphasis on recreation though was both real and unreal – the mosque, Mitchell tells us, turned out to be a façade; ‘its external form…was all there was. As for the interior, it had been set up as a coffee house, where Egyptian girls performed dances with young males, and dervishes whirled’.[2] This double bind of the real-unreal, or the paradox implicit in the notion of looking at what is only a representation, but adducing from it a sense of the real created a hyper-reality – something that is over-determined. It is under precisely these conditions that the gaze becomes powerful since it can shape and configure given phenomena if these are received as images.

This notion was taken to an extreme at an Orientalists’ Conference in Berlin (some years before the Paris exhibition) where the ‘grotesque idea was started of producing natives of Oriental countries as illustration of a paper: thus the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford produced a real live Indian pandit, and made him go through the ritual of Brahaminical prayer and worship before a hilarious assembly’ while ‘Professor Müller of Oxford produced two rival Japanese priests, who exhibited their gifts; it had the appearance of two showmen exhibiting their monkeys’.[3] One of the developing features of the West, then, has been its emphasis on the gaze and the power it affords to objectify things. This capacity in turn renders the European the observer – the agent to whom is assigned the power of observation and its concomitant power to alter what is perceived.

Describing his obsession with the ‘hidden laws of nature’, Victor Frankenstein confesses ‘that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attraction for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn… [all] my enquiries were directed to…the physical secrets of the world’.[4] In her characterisation of Victor, Mary Shelly drew upon the notion of the scientist as imagined in the nineteenth century – diligent, unemotional, and meticulously scrutinising. This image of the scientist however was developed over centuries and went as far back as Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century. The efficacy of the scientist lay in his (and it was invariably a gendered discipline) ability to look and scrutinise his object of study. The notion of the gaze as power is, I suggest, also in part derived from the historic development of science in the West. At one point Shelly has Victor compare himself with his adopted sister, Elizabeth:

She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home – the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes in the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers – she found ample scope for admiration and delight. While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.[5]

Leaving aside the clear gendering of pursuits that Victor describes, Shelly’s point of contrast between Victor and Elizabeth is the gaze, which for one is merely looking, while for the other a means of mastering that which is “seen”.

Within these parameters the West’s encounter with the Muslim “East” becomes highly charged. In her book, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, Katherine Bullock asks, ‘what happens then when [Europe] encounters a world set up to deny the gaze?’ ‘It is not hard to see’, she says later on, ‘how frustrated a European visitor would be upon arrival to the Middle East, where the women covered their faces with veils. The women did not present themselves as exhibit. Neither did the houses in which they lived (lattices were over the windows that looked onto the street), nor did the male/female segregation allow for it. The veiled women violated all the requirements of the world as exhibition: they could not be seen…[and] were not a picture that could be read’.[6] As a result, Muslim women in the colonial age became a particular target of both the coloniser and the native elites who, in an attempt to play catch up with the dominant West, adopted a view of the gaze as power too. Unveiling became a chief concern of the elites and the veil became a potent symbol of the progress or regress of a nation.

The colonial context also helps explain a contrast between Western culture and the Hindu culture of South Asia, where the gaze and image are key components of a way of life in which gods are carried in street parades and adorned with clothes, garlands and other decorations, where the mere act of “looking” is part of worship. “The Indian Hindu scopic regime” – to use Pinney’s phrase – centres on the concept of “Darshan” which evokes the idea of an interplay between the worshiper “seeing” and “being seen” by a deity.[7] What this does not translate into, however, is spectacle in the way that an emphasis on the gaze can for the West. There are two reasons for this. One is the importance given to the metaphysical in Indian culture and the lack of emphasis on a metaphysical/mystical dimension in mainstream Western culture. Second is the historical experience of colonialism, which for Indians involved the experience of receiving colonial images of India, and for the European the experience of having the agency to create those images. The premise I am building therefore is one in which the gaze and image are seen as fundamental components of the hyper-reality of Western modernity, and that together they speak of the centrality of spectacle in the historical development of Western culture.[8]

Bearing this in mind is important when we look to our present and the profusion of images that surround us. That profusion, I suggest, is part of a culture in which spectacle still holds centre stage. What’s more, that historically developed particular, combined with a capitalist economy and outlook has borne the commercialism we encounter everyday. For Muslims however, the centrality of spectacle in the West carries today an extra dimension of affect.

I want to think about how Muslim images in particular – the bearded Mullah, the suspiciously clad niqabi sister, the shouting raving crowd after the cartoon fiasco, or the “mob” burning Rushdie’s book – get repeated endlessly on the TV, on the internet, in the newspapers and thus come to function as a form of spectacle. In such a condition the primary spectator, I suggest, becomes the non-Muslim and his or her gaze, while the individual Muslim becomes positioned as spectacle too since they are always available to become objects of spectacle. What does this mean? The image presented as spectacle places pressure on the individual Muslim to adopt a non-Muslim gaze on the given phenomena to lessen his or her own objectification. The image effectively becomes a device by which Muslims are placed as outsiders and pressured to adopt a non-Muslim stance to reposition themselves as insider.[9] 

The capacity to pressurise and affect one’s gaze is part of the power images practice. Fanon writes about the way in which negative imagery about a minority can seep into the personalities of individuals from that community and, to build on Fanon’s premise, also seep into the collective unconscious of that minority community.

I read white books and little by little I take into myself the prejudices, the myths, the folklore that have come to me from Europe… After having been the slave of the white man he enslaves himself.[10]

If a people are surrounded by images in which they are depicted as malignant and their ways as regressive, it is harder for them to foster in themselves and in their community a coherent and confident identity. What is even more, such images perpetrate violence through an act of “masking” images other than those that the image producers sanction. A clear example of this litters the streets of central London. Statues of white men (and they are almost always men) come to represent the face of history. They are the respectable face of history, sanctioned by the image producers/financiers when in reality the history of Britain – like that of so many nations – is dominated by the sweat and blood of the working class, or, in the case of America, black slaves. But such images as we have mask that history and author/authorise another history making it seem more “real” by sheer/mere iconography.[11]

Another good example of where images mask and author/authorise a different narrative is in the case of maps. These are often considered instrumental objects: they help planes and ships travel; they help identify the different people of the world geographically. Yet I want to propose that as image, maps have a potential power to shape our spatial understanding of the world. Take for example Israel and Palestine. What did the map look like before Israel came into existence? And now that it is in existence, how has that existence been reinforced and ratified if not through the image of the map. What I am suggesting is that maps naturalises spatial-geographical configurations and produce an amnesic effect concerning earlier territorialisations in our perception of the world.[12] Simply put, images can colonise our visual landscape affecting our perception of reality.

But images are vulnerable in one respect. They are always incomplete and need reinforcement and narrative to locate them. What I mean by this is that if an image stands for itself it is because it has become established in the culture through a process of repetition and reinforcement. A simple example would be a picture of a celebrity. We may be able to easily identify it – meaning it can stand on its own – because we have been trained to read it. Now imagine someone from a different society and culture sees that same image. To him or her it would be less striking because they would not know whom the person in the picture is since he or she has not been trained. Hence images can be read precisely because they do not operate in a vacuum – they are woven into cultural narratives. An image of a young bearded man in shalwar kameez with a turban carries a certain baggage because that baggage has been connected with it through successive word associations.

When you see me what is it you see? You see a person/human being; you see a man; you see a man with a beard; you see a man with a beard dressed in casual dress; you see a man with a beard dressed in casual dress who – if you know my name – is called Syed. In the midst of all of this what you “see” is mediated by a number of word associations and that is how images too are made comprehensible in the first instance.

For example, the term immigrant not only evokes certain other words – like “swamped”, “leeching off the system” etc. – but also certain images. Right now it may be the Eastern European but before it was the “Paki”. Yet somehow, in popular imagination, the picture of an immigrant is not that of a Doctor or University professor even though there are a number of immigrants who are part of these professions too. Instead, the picture one carries is normally that of a cleaner or some other manual labourer. Nor does the subject of migration project images of middle class white professionals moving abroad to start a new life in Spain or France. In the year 2006, 207,000 Native Britons emigrated[13] to another country taking up opportunities abroad, yet this is never part of the picture on the topic of immigration/emigration. Why is this?

One of the reasons is that societies have particular infrastructures that enable images to emerge in the public domain; those with greater power or influence (“the in-group”) have greater agency to affect this process. In our society (and in our contemporary world) it is the media that is the primary agent for the perpetuation of images. The Sun, to take an example, has a circulation of over three million[14] and it is an avowedly right wing newspaper, making it influential (together with other such positioned media) in suturing certain images with certain narratives.

Recently I was talking to someone at my University. I happened to be wearing a “topee” (religious hat) – I was actually having a bad hair day! – and the person said to me at the end of our conversation: “you know when I first saw you I thought you would have very different views; you know, I thought you’d be a fundamentalist (whatever that means)”. Of course what had happened is that the image I was presenting – beard, topee etc. – had been woven over time with a narrative about the alien-ness of Muslims, their essentially irrational, violent, oppressive nature, and so when he saw me, the image I presented evoked a narrative in his mind and the image therefore found meaning through that narrative.

The point is that to understand the power of images we must simultaneously understand the dialogic nature they share with narratives in which they are (a) embedded, and (b) derive their signification or meaning. ‘Social consciousness about diverse human groups is saturated’, writes Alexander Tsesis, ‘with cultural meanings about them’.[15] These meanings, to broaden Tsesis’s point, are conveyed as much through images as they are by other means. In fact, as images, they help establish and then normalise particular typologies and mask alternative “faces” – a smiling female Muslim officer crouching to offer a child a hand is masked or made less efficacious than the shouting bearded face of a Muslim at a protest rally. Indeed, to understand why and how this set of circumstances has been actualised one must appreciate, as Tsesis mentions elsewhere, that ‘the cognitive foundation of bigotry are found in cultural discourse’.[16]

The process of normalisation occurs over time and so slowly that the seeping in of images and ideas goes almost unnoticed. When it is noticed, the ability of the minority to mobilise to do something about it highlights their lack of involvement with the structures that promulgate the message and image. There is no doubt that certain professions are still dominated by white middle class men (take publishing for instance). This is not surprising in one sense. Marginal communities are either immigrants or historically underprivileged groups whose involvement with such mediums was – in the case of immigrants – the least of their problems (when they came to settle), or – in the case of the historically underprivileged groups – met with greater impediments. These of course are the necessary issues every “modern/progressive/democratic” society ought to expose, challenge, and change, but negative stereotyping or misinformation insulate an environment in which it is easier to overlook or displace the importance of such efforts. Indeed, the fact that verbal and printed attacks on Muslims are masked by a “freedom of speech” doctrine overlooks the verity that bigotry entrenches itself in a culture over years, and not through a systematic assault on a group but through the slow procuring of disparate incidents of hate.

Images as vehicles for the transmission of narrative attitudes have a proselytising effect in the same way that labels assist in reifying prejudices. Though Tsesis does not include images explicitly, the central premise of Destructive Messages (that hate speech paves the way for harmful social movements) can easily be broadened to include visual images as well. That being the case, we can add “image” to when he says in chapter seven,

Widely propagated names and labels create an artificial picture of reality. The symbolic power of language generates impressions that, when unquestioned, come to be presumed indications about actuality. “Naming” a group means assigning a qualitative concept to it. The epistemic purpose of names is to refer to the concept… There is also a semantic element to naming that incorporates the cultural conscience. Epithets, therefore, not only evoke the idea of the object itself but of the cultural meanings attached to it.[17]

The mechanics of the power of images operate in much the same way. There is, however, one thing unique to images and that is that quite apart from carrying the specific cultural meaning of what they portray (“internally” in one sense), in the way they are employed today they are symbols of our modern age. Yet this age is not characterised by a universalism where every culture participates on an equal footing. The modes of production and consumption of images is largely learnt from the dominant West. Take any metropolis in the world and the common feature to all will be adverts on billboards, on the side of busses, in newspapers – in short, a capitalist and commercial ethos whose mascot is the “image”. The modernity to which images (used in this way) speak is a Western modernity, and thus the power which images can wield points to a continuing colonial praxis similar to the 19th century with which this article opened.


Source: www.islam21c.com

This is a lecture Syed Haider delivered at Lewisham masjid in 2007. It has been transcribed here with certain adjustments to help with it flow.

[1] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, (London: University of California Press, 1991), p1.
[2] Ibid, p1.
[3] Ibid, p2.
[4] Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, (London: Penguin, 1994/1818), p35.
[5] Ibid, p35.
[6] Katherine Bullock, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, (Surrey: Intl. Inst. Of Islamic Thought, 2002) p5.
[7] For more on the visual culture of India, see Pinney (2004) and Guha-Thakurta (2004). For an insightful review of both authors and their 2004 publication (see bibliography) the author refers readers to, Ajay J. Sinha, ‘Visual Culture and the Politics of Locality in Modern India: A Review Essay’, Modern Asian Studies (2007), 41:1, 187-220.
[8] My use of the term ‘spectacle’ is in the sense that Guy Debord used it in Society of the Spectacle (1983). For more on this see, Anne Freidberg, ‘The mobilised and virtual gaze in modernity’, in, The Visual Culture Reader, ed. by Nicholas Mirzoeff, (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp395-404 and Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Struggle, (New York: Routledge, 1995).
[9] It doesn’t take much to see that in our present time Muslims have been objectified – that stands as a self-evident truth. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Muslim doctor or a Muslim student, the chances are that you will always be asked a political question, and if this rings true with the experience of Muslims it is because we have all become political objects. Part of this objectification is also the essentialising of Muslims so that if someone convicted of a crime happens to be Muslim, his or her Muslim-ness is brought into focus. And yet the pressure on an individual Muslim is always to align themselves to the host community and their gaze – to see “x” as they see it. I remember clearly a conversation with my college librarian – a small finicky Chinese lady – about 9/11 the day after it happened. She wanted to know what I thought but insisted at the same time that I condemn it categorically without adding any footnotes about American military aggression.
[10] Quoted in, Alexander Tsesis, Destructive Messages, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p97.
[11] Take any Second World War movie and you will hardly see any Indian soldiers depicted even though there were more than 2 million. See, John Weeks, World War II Small Arms, (New York: Galahad Books, 1979).
[12] This idea is explored in greater depth by José Rabasa in, Inventing A-M-E-R-I-C-A: Spanish Historiography and the formation of Eurocentrism, (London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). 
[13] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/nov/16/emigration
[14] http://www.abc.org.uk/cgi-bin/gen5?runprog=nav/abc&noc=y
[15] Quoted in, Alexander Tsesis, Destructive Messages, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p82.
[16] Ibid, p86.
[17] Ibid, p100.

The Postcolonial Studies Reader, ed. by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffieths, Helen Tiffin, (London: Routledge, 1995)
Bullock, Katherine, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, (Surrey: Intl. Inst. Of Islamic Thought, 2002)
Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle,(London: Rebel Press, 1983)
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati, Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)
McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Struggle, (New York: Routledge, 1995)
The Visual Culture Reader, ed. by Nicholas Mirzoeff, (New York: Routledge, 1998),
Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt, (London: University of California Press, 1991)
Pilger, John, Freedom Next Time, (London: Transworld, 2007)
Pinney, Christopher, ‘Photos of the Gods’: the printed image and political struggle in India, (London: Reakton Books, 2004)
Rabasa, José, Inventing A-M-E-R-I-C-A: Spanish Historiography and the formation of Eurocentrism, (London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993) 
Robins, Kevin, Into the Image, (London: Routledge, 1996)
Shelly, Mary, Frankenstein, (London: Penguin, 1994/1818)


Sinha, Ajay J., ‘Visual Culture and the Politics of Locality in Modern India: A Review Essay’, Modern Asian Studies (2007), 41:1


Tsesis, Alexander, Destructive Messages, (New York: New York University Press, 2002)
Weeks, John, World War II Small Arms, (New York: Galahad Books, 1979)         


Electronic sources



About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. Responding to Suhaib
    Dear Suhaib,

    The message is threefold: 1) Images are powerful because they are part of a system of signification which mediates our relationship and understanding of the world and people in it. 2) When images become part of a culture of spectacle (as they have done so in Western modernity and for other modernities) their power can become negative as evidenced by the experience of many Muslims living in the West today. Images in this instance can convert the real life object they depict into a spectacle too (eg. the Muslim woman wearing the niqab) 3) An analysis of image links to an analysis of the gaze and the spectator and their interplay with power and domination (especially in the case of Western modernity since the late 18th century).

    Finally, an analysis of images led me to an interesting paradox, which was that although in my exploration images emerged as powerful, they were also limited. Images without narrative are meaningless: that is, they cannot be read. The essay explains this towards the end.

    I hope this helps you understand the article better insha’Allah.



  2. Interesting article, but summary required!!
    I have spend some time reading this article.

    Its very interesting, but Mr. Syed, can you kindly send me a summary of the article.

    As Im still very confused about the main message in this article?!


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