Photographing Presidential Untruths

The Iran-Contra Affair – also known as ‘Irangate’ – was perhaps the worst moment of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In November 1986 it was first revealed that senior officials of Reagan’s administration had been secretly facilitating the sale of arms to Iran while the country was subject to an arms embargo. Using Israel as a middle-man to ship the weapons, the arrangement was intended to bring about the release of American hostages. Proceeds from the sales had then been used to fight the Cold War by funding anti-communist Nicaraguan rebels, known as Contras.

Reagan first appeared on television when news of the scandal broke to deny the involvement of the United States in any arms-for-hostages deals. When his words were proven untrue, Reagan returned to the airwaves on 4 March 1987 to deliver a humiliated televised address admitting to the Affair. Claiming not to have been aware of the deal, in a feat of political maneuvering Reagan told the American public:

‘The reason I haven’t spoken to you before now is this: You deserve the truth. And as frustrating as the waiting has been, I felt it was improper to come to you with sketchy reports, or possibly even erroneous statements, which would then have to be corrected, creating even more doubt and confusion. …
A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.’

To this day, Reagan’s involvement and possible motivations are unknown.


While Reagan delivered his speech, American artist Robert Heinecken simultaneously created an artwork. Heinecken photographed a television set screening the announcement and then juxtaposed 12 images with nonsynchronous remarks spoken by Reagan. By highlighting the ambiguous and potentially manipulative nature of the President’s speech, Heinecken revealed the television as a tool for ideological indoctrination and urged viewers to question what they heard and saw.

Images: Robert Heinecken, Mr. President, 1987. 3 of 12 silver-dye bleach prints, 28 x 35.5 cm each. Institute of Art Chicago

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