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The Art of Dissent

When it comes to trying to sway public opinion, provocative images can be potent tools

By Ian Zack

A picture, it's often said, is worth a thousand words. Images can be powerful tools for selling a product, as the ad agencies along Madison Avenue well know. They can also help sell ideas, as politicians, protesters, and anybody who wants to express their opinion have long demonstrated. Whether criticizing government leaders, commenting on issues in the news, or raising awareness of issues that aren't in the spotlight, provocative images can be an effective way to get attention.

The images on these pages are reprinted from The Design of Dissent, by Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic (Rockport Publishers, 2005), a collection of protest posters and other imagery from the past five years, as well as some older material. The subjects covered range from the Iraq war and modern technology, to the dangers of smoking and America's two-party political system.

In a foreword to the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner writes about what makes a powerful protest image: "It is shocking, it is clever—even funny in a grim sort of way—and its meaning is instantly intelligible."

As you look at the images here, keep in mind that those in power at any given moment are the most likely targets of protest and dissent. It's not surprising, then, that there are a lot of people poking fun at President Bush and his policies these days, just as President Clinton was a popular target during his years in the White House. You may not agree with all the sentiments expressed in these images; in fact, some of them might make you angry. But that's part of the point: Whether you like them or not, they make an impression.

UNABLE In this 1995 poster, the artist uses a helpless turtle—with a U.N. peacekeeper's helmet as his shell—to symbolize an equally helpless U.N. In the early 1990s, the U.N. failed to resolve the conflict in Bosnia, a part of the former Yugoslavia, where a civil war raged despite the efforts of U.N. peacekeepers.
[Yossi Lemel, Israel, 1995]

PRINTED IN USA The artist is commenting on how fingerprints have become like barcodes, making people as easy to monitor as items in the supermarket. U.S. Customs now fingerprints foreign visitors as they enter the country, part of the effort to increase security after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Note the 'words' in the barcode.
[Emek, U.S., 2003]

COCA-COLONIZATION A comment on the pervasiveness and the impact of American corporate brands around the world, including in poor third-world countries.
[Chaz Maviyane-Davies, U.S., 2000]

STOP THE PLANT This poster was part of a campaign against the construction of a cement plant along the Hudson River in upstate New York. Opponents of the plant said it would emit millions of pounds of pollutants each year and endanger public health.
[Woody Pirtle/Pentagram, U.S., 2003]

G.M.O. FOOD This image of a lemon sprouting hair is from a poster commenting on the genetic modification of food. The unpleasant image is intended to warn against the unknown consequences of 'messing with Mother Nature.'
[Jarek Bujny, Poland, 2004]

PAY US TO KILL YOU The artist's grandmother died after a long battle with emphysema, inspiring this poster countering cigarette ads that don't talk about the health risks associated with smoking.
[G. Dan Covert, U.S., 2001]

PARTY ANIMALS This poster is a playful protest against what the artist sees as the limited choices offered by America's two-party system.
[Thomas Porostocky, U.S., 2004]

FIRST & LAST IMPRESSION A protest against police brutality created for the human-rights organization Amnesty International by an artist from one of the former Yugoslav republics.
[Tomato Kosir, Slovenia, 2000]

WAR WEAR RIFLE Rifle is a trendy Italian jeans company. The poster is meant to contrast consumer-driven lifestyles with the horrors of war.
[Tomato Kosir, Slovenia, 2000]

HUMAN TRAFFICKING This poster calls attention to the global problem of human trafficking. Traffickers recruit mostly women and young girls, promising a job or a new life abroad, but instead coerce them into prostitution or forced labor.
[Alex Briseno & Hernan Ibanez, U.S., 2004]

CHILDREN AT WAR Variations on road signs are frequently used in protest images because they're universally understood. This poster is a call to abolish the use of child soldiers, which is especially prevalent in Africa.
[Woody Pirtle/Pentagram, U.S., 1999]

GOT OIL? In a parody of the "Got Milk?" ad campaign for the American Dairy Association, President Bush is shown with an oil mustache.
[Nenad Cizl & Toni Tomasek, Slovenia, 2004]

WAR ON TERROR The creators of this poster suggest that the war on terror is having the same effect as pouring gasoline on a fire.
[Marty Neumeier & Josh Levine, U.S., 2004]

LET MY PEOPLE GO The artist uses the Communist hammer and sickle in a poster protesting the former Soviet Union's policy of prohibiting Jews from emigrating.
[Dan Reisinger, Israel, 1969]