The terrorist image
: a mixed-methods exploration of Islamic State photo-propaganda

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Man has long attempted to reconstruct and challenge reality through pictures. From the Chauvet cave paintings to Magritte’s “The Key of Dreams,” man-made images have been used since prehistory to curate conceptions of human existence and re-package the world we live in.

Perhaps no moment in modern history was more impactful to this pursuit than the advent of photography. Indeed, when the first permanent photographic image was captured in 1825, the human capacity to articulate visual meaning was transformed. As a form of communication, photography’s advantages were manifold: it was deemed to be “scientific,” and, as a means with which to record physical traces of an object or scene, often assumed to be above and beyond human subjectivity. From the early twentieth century onwards, though, critical theorists began to take it to task, questioning just how much it could be believed—to what extent, they asked, did photographs represent an objective “truth”? Their emergent scepticism was bolstered by the camera’s integration into the arsenals of propagandists the world over, especially at times of war, when photography’s tendentious relationship with reality was most evidently stretched. Over the years, this position was set to become the norm, such that nowadays it is widely accepted that photographic “reality” is, at best, a composite of stratified and constructed subjectivities—indeed, regardless of their motivation, the mainstream critical position now goes, photographs cannot be taken for granted as objective representations of “facts.”

This thesis contends that this phenomenon has never been as starkly—or as dangerously—relevant as it is today, in light of the rise of the Islamic State. Indeed, as it demonstrates, the summer of 2014—in which the group seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, attempted to commit a genocide against the Yezidi minority, captured vast swathes of eastern Syria, and declared itself a latter-day caliphate—marked a turning point in the history of photography, one that stretched the photographic image’s already-contested relationship with reality to its very limits. Uniquely obsessed with narrative, image management, and branding, the Islamic State used cameras as weapons throughout its formative years as caliphate. The tens of thousands of photographs its propagandists captured during this time were used to denote policy, navigate through defeat, and, perhaps most importantly, construct an impossible reality, a totalising image-world of salafi-jihadist symbols and myths.

Based on an analysis of its photographs—over twenty thousand of which were collected by the author between December 2015 and September 2017—this thesis explores the process by which the Islamic State shook the foundations of modern war photography. Through thematic network analysis and semiotic examination—that is, the study of signs and the way they operate to produce cultural meaning—it identifies the implicit value systems that underpin the Islamic State’s ideological appeal, evaluates its contribution to the evolution of photographic language and, more generally, advances a new theoretical approach for conducting systematic visual propaganda analysis.
Date of Award1 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorPeter Neumann (Supervisor) & Neville Bolt (Supervisor)

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