If you had asked me yesterday if there was such a thing as an evil version of a Madonna-and-child tableau, I would have said no. Then this morning, I saw this picture of Asma Assad, the dictator's wife, smiling and reaching out to touch one of the small children surrounding her. Her hand is clawing up the girl's arm; the girl keeps her eyes down and her jaw set. None of the children are smiling. They look as if they are about to be tortured, which is not an unreasonable speculation on their part.
The photograph was posted to the official Syrian Presidency Instagram account, which Times pointed out in a haunting article about the public facade that the regime is putting up in the face of impending American intervention. (The account is not to be confused with the "Real Syrian Presidency" Instagram feed, which posts pictures of dead and bloodied Syrian bodies.) Although she hasn't shown up in photos in recent weeks, the photogenic Mrs. Assad had been appearing regularly in the official images. (Update: since this was published, four new photos of Mrs. Assad went up.) She hugs old women, ladles out soup to the needy, and in some, she wears a Jawbone to track her calories burned. (In a way, that's the most propagandistic detail of all: no one can be starving if the first lady has to count calories, right?) Her husband wears a crisp suit and speaks confidently from various podiums. There are martial images, but they are sanitized and clean: troops standing and talking to Assad. Per the conventions of the form, there are "throw-back Thursday posts," like this one of Assad as a young captain in the army in 1994.
The Assad presidency is not the only dictatorial regime that has used Instagram. (The Ayatollah Khamenei got really into posting selfies.) And the Assads are certainly not the only Instagram users guilty of making their life look a whole lot nicer on the social-network, via carefully selected postings. Just about every Instagram user does that! Of course, neither is it the first regime, by a long shot, to use propagandistic art. War photography, too, has a long history of being distorted. Even Matthew Brady staged some of his famous American Civil War chronicles, moving the dead bodies around for better composition. Go into any ancient art gallery, and what you're seeing is in some ways a version of what the Assads are doing. Those busts of Julius Ceasar or paintings featuring Genghis Khan are a version of the many pictures of Assad striding around. Rulers have burnished their own images in whatever the preferred medium of the day was for as long as art has been around. But there are a couple of particularly creepy things about this interation: First, even if it glorified battle, most victors' art at least acknowledged the human cost of victory. The Assad Instagram only elliptically hints that all is not well in Syria, via the soup-kitchens and the occasional presence of soldiers. It's a quashed rebellion free of casualties, in their telling. And then there's the "insta-" part. It takes a while to carve a bust or paint a mural. Toggling between news reports on what's really happening in Syria and the Instagram account drives home a truth that it's good to be reminded of: Photography isn't neccessarily realism.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at the New Republic.