Taking its title from a 1950s CIA manual on killing, the young LCC MA graduate's project reveals the surreal clash of leaked CIA documents, government propaganda, and bananas
In 1997, a document titled A Study of Assassination was released by the CIA as part of the Freedom of Information Act. It is believed to have been created in 1953 with the purpose of instructing agents on how to kill, and was released with a collection of files relating to the 1954 CIA-backed overthrow of the-then newly-elected leader of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. The operation in Guatemala was lobbied for by United Fruit Company, an American corporation that traded in tropical fruit, mainly bananas, and which wielded huge power in Central America at the time.
When he found out about these documents, George Selley was instantly captivated, and his new project, A Study of Assassination, combines pages from the manual with archival press images, banana advertisements, and Cold War propaganda. BJP caught up with the recent London College of Communication MA graduate to find out more about this project and his approach to images.
BJP: What were your thoughts when you first read the manual?
George Selley: That truth is stranger than fiction. I first heard about the Assassination Manual through Errol Morris’ latest documentary series Wormwood. It instantly fascinated me, and the more I researched it, the stranger it got. Here we had a story that involved a secret CIA assassination manual, an exiled military dictator, and an illegal foreign military intervention, and it was all linked through bananas. I mean you just couldn’t make this stuff up. Like a lot of classified documents, it had an absurdity about it, a kind of surrealist vibe – almost like a parody. It wouldn’t have been out of place had it featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove.
I became increasingly interested in United Fruit Company, especially when I learnt that they are still operating on a global scale under the name Chiquita, and that they were forced to make a private settlement this year with the families of victims who had been killed by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces. It turned out that the company had been funding the army for years. It was clear that this was a corporation with an extremely sinister way of operating – the phrase “banana republic” actually originates from United Fruit’s imperialist behaviour in Central America. But what was even more interesting to me was how they’d used advertising so effectively over the years to mould the public perception of bananas as an innocent and humorous fruit.
BJP: You use the banana humorously, but juxtapose it with a story that is quite dark. What’s the purpose of this?
GS: Bananas hold symbolism associated with humour, sex, liberation and the American dream, but in fact they have this very sinister history linked with capitalist imperialism and mass genocide. The United Fruit Company actually hired Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays as their head of PR in the 1950s – which was a rather new concept then. Bernays was known for taking what his uncle had taught him and applying it to the advertising industry, which was beginning to boom after the war. This concept of playing on people’s hidden desires and fears in order to get them to purchase something has since become a common advertising strategy –misinformed consumers making irrational decisions. Bernays’ strategy was extremely effective, and even when the company was exposed for malpractice on numerous occasions, the humorous symbolisms of the image of the banana remained, and still does to this day. I wanted to play on this darkly ironic juxtaposition, and attempt to challenge our conceptions of the banana.
I have also always been inspired by a theory that the late Tim Hetherington had, which he called the ‘Trojan Horse theory’. The idea was that he would frame a story as if it were about a topic people would engage with. His story on football-playing ex-Liberian soldiers is a good example of this – it appears to be about football, but actually it’s about the effects of war on communities in Africa. This always resonated with me, and I do believe that sometimes, if you want to convey a message to your audience, you have to “entice” them in before hitting them with a message.
I think using humour makes my work more accessible, it draws in viewers before they realise that actually this work is about something much more sinister, with quite a serious message. In a way you’re slipping the message in the back door, a bit like a Trojan Horse. I think often, aggressive imagery of war makes people turn away and avoid the message, this strategy tries to overcome that.
BJP: Your last project, Vault 7, was also inspired by leaked CIA documents. How did you come across them, and what made you want to explore them in your projects?
GS: There was a part of me that was once interested in becoming a war photojournalist. If I’m totally honest with myself, looking back, I think I was attracted by the romanticism of the idea. But when I started my MA in Photojournalism & Documentary Photography at London College of Communication I was exposed to the work and teaching of Edmund Clark. He became a huge influence on my practice. I had never encountered anybody confronting the issues of war in the way he does.
I noticed how he focused on evidence like flight schedules from CIA black sites, and letters to and from prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, and the idea of embedding work in deep levels of research naturally captivated me. What could be described as the bureaucracy of war, or the banality of power, has since become the main focus of my work. In some ways I guess I have become a war photographer, just not in the way I had originally imagined.
BJP: You use photomontage in A Study of Assassination, and post-production seems to be important in your previous projects too. How did you first start experimenting with your photography and what do you enjoy about working in this way?
GS: On my MA we took a module called “rethink”, where we were encouraged to completely rethink our practice. We had to take on a project, story or concept, and then tell it in a way that we never would have done before. I ended up working with leaked CIA documents from Wikileaks. Instead of approaching the project in a traditionally journalistic way, I decided to experiment with staging scenes described in the documents. I went to Frankfurt, where the CIA’s European Cyber Division is based, with an actor and followed a document that directed covert agents arriving in the city. I had no idea what the final outcome would be but followed my process strictly. The end result was really interesting, and it was also quite humorous. People started pointing me in the direction of all these amazing photographers I’d never heard of at that time, like Cristina de Middel, Laia Abril, and Guy Martin.
This approach, which could be described as conceptual documentary, fascinated me. Ever since I took that module I’m always thinking “How can I rethink this project?”. For A Study of Assassination, working with found imagery seemed the best way to tell the story. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. Originally I hadn’t intended to use photomontage, that was an approach that was born organically as I started working with the images and the Assassination Manual. The technique effectively conveys the surrealness of the material I was working with.
BJP: Photomontage has been used effectively by lots of political artists, who are your main artistic inspirations?
GS: Obviously Peter Kennard was a big inspiration for the project – I love his work, particularly some of his lesser known pieces from the 1970s on the judicial system in Britain. But in Barcelona I reconnected with Salvador Dali’s work. He was one of the only artists I remember genuinely engaging with as a young child, particularly the lobster telephone. This got me looking at Dadaism, which I’d been inspired by as a teenager. The movement’s anarchistic and anti-capitalist rhetoric suited my project really well, and I became particularly transfixed with the work of Max Ernst. He actually served in the First World War, and it was when he returned that he started producing these dark, anti-war photomontage pieces. They were just so eerie and, it seemed to me, way ahead of their time. It was really refreshing to be inspired by artists who weren’t necessarily photographers, it felt liberating and enabled me to think about my work in a more open way.
BJP: This project is the product of a two-month artist’s residency in Barcelona, how was that experience for you?
GS: The residency at Homesession was extremely valuable. Just having the time and space to really think is so underrated, and quite hard to find in London. My flat was actually contained within the studio and gallery space, so I was constantly engrossed in my work. I spent the two months before and the first month there just researching the topic, gathering information and content to work with. Research is a very large part of how I work – particularly with A Study of Assassination, I feel that the work is almost a pure visualisation of the research. I went through a few periods of intense isolation, I think the longest time I went without seeing anybody was two weeks. This allowed me to delve really deep into the project but also into my own head. I came to realise how important having an honest dialogue with yourself is.