First Person History – Social Imaging in the Euromaidan Protests and Beyond

Molotov seflie

With the rapid rise in popularity of image-based social networks such as Instagram, the production and dissemination of political content on social media is becoming an increasingly visual activity. Throughout the Arab Spring and subsequent political upheavals, images captured and shared through cell phones played a key role in the way protest movements conceive of themselves and project that image to the world.

Alongside this phenomenon, social imaging more broadly, including the much-discussed “selfie,” has burgeoned into an enormous new realm of visual culture. People are creating and sharing images of themselves, their experiences, and their friends at a volume that dwarfs what was enabled by previous amateur photography technologies. Social imaging is often an effort to articulate, contemplate, and share the identity of the photographer. This activity takes on new dimensions when the producers of social images are taking part in historic and violent events.

In conflict photography there was once a clear division between subject, photographer and viewer. Now, all three roles blend into one. A single actor in a revolutionary event will act as photographer, subject, and primary viewer of an image. The audience for these images consists of a network of others wearing the same three hats. When the main function of social images is the formation and communication of individual identity, how does this function change when these images double as historical documents? How is history written differently when it’s done instantly and self-reflexively, by the same people driving the historical events?

Taking a selfie during a revolution is not just a way of showing the world what’s happening, it’s a way of creating an image used to contemplate that reality for oneself, which is then shared and archived, allowing that contemplation to continue through socially and through memory.

protester seflie

Euromaidan

On November 21, 2013, protesters took to streets in Kiev, Ukraine, angry that president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly decided against signing an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. The move would have signaled continued Westernization for the former Soviet Bloc state. Instead, Yanukovych opted to strengthen ties to the East, with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The protesters, upset by a stagnant economy and widespread corruption, called for the resignation of Yanukovych.

The protests grew substantially on November 30 as a response to police violence. Protesters and police each claimed areas of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the main square of Kiev. The occasionally violent battles continued through the bitterly cold winter. In late February, violence escalated in the Square, Yanukovych and many of his supporters in parliament fled, allowing for opposition politicians to pass a series of reforms, effectively ending the standoff.

The protest came to be known as Euromaidan, a named coined on Twitter, which combines Euro- (for Europe) with Maidan (for the square). As with other recent protest movements, participants used social media to document and organize actions.

Around the time the Euromaiden protests were nearing their conclusion, I was experimenting with a web service called IFTTT.com, and acronym for If This Then That. It allows users to create “recipes” that allow different web services to interact with each other. A trigger in one service causes an action in another. It’s often used to create automatic back-ups, or small efficiency improvements. I noticed that the Instagram trigger allowed you to collect photos based on the location where the photo was taken. This allows you to essentially follow a location on Instagram, rather than a person. You select a location on a map, and anytime someone takes an Instagram photo there, it triggers the IFTTT recipe. I made a recipe to collect all the Instagram photos taken in Independence Square in Kiev and save them to a Google spreadsheet.

IFTTT

Over the last several days of the protests, I collected thousands of images. In general the images fall into three categories. First, amateur photojournalism, photos that exist primarily to document the scene. These include photos of burning barricades, first aid efforts, damage to buildings, makeshift memorials for the dead, etc. The second type is propaganda. These images are often not photographs, but are drawings or other graphics supporting the cause of the protestors. These are captured because they were uploaded from Independence Square, so they bear the GPS signature. The final type of images are the ones of primary interest to me, social images. I define social images as images that communicate the user’s identity, narrative, and style. These images include selfies, self-portraits taken at an arms length, but they also include portraits of friends, visual narrative, and other explorations of aesthetic identity. An important function of social images is their ability to help the photographer contemplate, archive, and re-contemplate themselves and their surroundings. This function is always present, but it becomes even more crucial when the circumstances surrounding the image become historic, violent, or otherwise hard to come to terms with.

Euromaidan seflie

The Selfie

To better understand social images, lets take a closer look at the ultimate social image, the selfie. In an essay titled, “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie” art critic Jerry Saltz defines and unpacks the form:

A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history.

Saltz points out that while selfies are casual, they are not accidental. Each image must be reviewed before it’s uploaded. This moment between capturing and sharing allows for “control as well as the presence of performing, self-criticality, and irony.” Selfies typically contain a knowing glance, a look of simulated eye contact with the viewer. Saltz compares this to “methexis” in ancient Greek theater, when the performer addressed the audience directly.

Some of the most noteworthy selfies are taken in unusual or inappropriate circumstances. Selfies taken at funerals by teens are common enough to warrant a blog, Funeral Selfies, that does nothing but track the questionable images. Many other examples of selfies in inappropriate situations exist, including touring a gas chamber at Auschwitz, in front of a car crash, and with someone about to jump off a bridge visible over the subject/photographer’s shoulder.

Funeral seflie

The most famous, or infamous, funeral selfie has never been seen. We only have third party documentation of the moment it was taken. President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a group selfie at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Saltz imagines the thoughts going through the heads of these world leaders as they snap this cheery and surreal photo. “It is totally incomprehensible, even to us, to be us … being here.”

These three world leaders, like the protesters in Independence Square, are writing both a personal and an historical narrative at once. In the moment, however, the weight of history only casts an uncanny shadow on the more immediate act of creating the image as a way of contemplating oneself in unbelievable circumstances.

I interviewed Alicia Eler, Selfie Columnist for Hyperallergic since June 2013. I asked her what she thought of my idea that selfies in war zones are first a tool of self-contemplation, and second a communication with the wider world. She said,

Selfies are recognizable as selfies, and those who take them in the middle of conflict zones do so as networked postcards. They at once appear as memories, documentary, and a quick hello, as if to say: ‘I was here. This is me.’ There’s a great selfie from the latest round of protests in Istanbul–protestors are thrown into the back of a van, and together they take a selfie that was instantly associated with Ellen’s academy awards corporate selfie because of the angle, the number of people in the photo, and the timing of both selfies. In this way, no matter where the selfie is taken–in the back of a protest van, at the academy awards, on a vacation, in a bathroom–it is more likely to be considered in relation to the composition of other selfies. And then the protest is against the selfie itself rather than what it captures.

If a selfie automatically situates itself in the wider context of other selfies, it’s worth expanding how this idea relates to social images more generally. Where else do social imaging and violent conflict intersect, and what can they tell us about the nature of each?

Rabih Mroué’s Pixelated Revolution

“The Syrian protestors are recording their own death.”

So begins a lecture/performance presented by Lebanese artist and actor Rabih Mroué presented in 2011 and 2012. Near the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Mroué found several clips on YouTube of protestors accidentally filming their own deaths. This was at a moment when the uprising in Syria was still viewed as the latest in a series of revolutions known as the Arab Spring. The violence captured in these videos was the very beginning of a long a brutal civil war that still rages today.

Rabih Mroué

The videos were taken because there was a sense that the crimes of the regime needed to be recorded, with the hope that president Bashar al-Assad would be held accountable. In one video, the cameraman stands on a balcony, franticly panning around in search of a soldier who is firing on nearby protesters. The video find the shooter, they share eye contact for a moment, then the image jerks wildly with a loud bang. Mroué calls the found videos “double shootings.”

One of the videos showcased and discussed by Mroué can be see here (warning, it is disturbing).

In the lecture, Mroué compares the aesthetic of double shooting videos to Dogme 95. Dogme 95 was an independent film movement that was active in Denmark in the mid 90’s. Filmmakers adhered to a strict set of guidelines, using very small budgets. Filmmakers eschewed special effects and other production techniques in favor of grit and veracity. The exchange of filming tactics among Syrian protesters operates as a parallel manifesto. In an interview, Mroué says,

[Dogme 95] stipulates that you should not record violent scenes, or weapons, because they don’t want to fake these things. So it’s not necessary to use them. For the Syrians, they add to this dictate insofar as the violent scenes being recorded are actually for real and the stipulation is also correct – do not record violence – insofar as the weapon could kill them and the scene of killing is thereafter real. There is no attempt to fake death here – it is all too real.

The Democratic Promise of Social Media

A persistent myth surrounding social media and political conflict since the beginning of the Arab Spring, or before, is that these technologies will have a democratizing effect. Once the world sees the actions of dictators through the eyes of the oppressed, the thinking goes, international condemnation and response will be swift and effective. This has not turned out to be true.

Social media is a propaganda tool that’s free for anyone to use. There’s no better reminder of this than the official Instagram account of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Widely considered to be a war criminal, Assad’s Instagram feed features political rallies, smiling diplomatic meetings in a lavish palace, and plenty of precious photos of the first lady performing humanitarian aid. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Greenhouse considers the ethics of this banal and horrifying stream of images. She asks, “What does a social-media company do when a user known to be attacking civilians is blasting out feel-good content?” To find out, she asked Instagram. They refused to comment on specific users, but still managed to give a response with maddeningly circular logic. In general, Instagram will ban users who upload violent or hateful content. The determination is based largely on context, and “context” is limited to the content uploaded to the site. So as long as Assad’s Instagram feed presents the appearance of a benevolent and just leader—in other words, portrays effective propaganda—Instagram is just fine with it.

Social media as a democratizing force is also undercut by the way content can travel freely, even when it’s divorced from ideology. In the Washington Post, Neil Ketchley observes that revolutionaries share tactics through social media regardless of ideology. Recent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt have studied tactics of the Ukrainian protesters, despite the fact that their political affiliations couldn’t be more different. The Euromaidan protesters were fighting for increased Westernization and closer ties to Europe, while the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting for a return to power for Islamist leaders deposed by a more secular military. Ketchley quotes an anonymous Muslim Brotherhood protester, emphasis mine:

The Ukrainians know how to make big molotovs, so we watch how they use them and in which situations so that we can better defend ourselves against the police. We don’t care about the situation in Ukraine; we only hear a little about it on the news. But they know how to use molotovs to hold their square against the police.

Another revelatory example of social media use in war is the way the Israeli Defense Forces have recently used a number of platforms, including Instagram. A November 2012 assault on Gaza was documented in real time on multiple social media platforms. Updates came at each stage of the assault, announcing the killing of key enemy combatants, statistics on rocket strikes, and warnings to Palestinian civilians to avoid Hamas operatives for their own safety.

Huw Lemmey takes a critical look at IDF’s social media strategy, particularly Instagram, in his essay “Devastation in Meatspace.” This propaganda, like older examples, synthesizes a community that excludes others while protecting you, the intended viewer. Lemmey says the IDF employs a “visual regime based around firmly entrenched, conservative branding techniques.” Instagram has the dual effect of putting the war on a “consumer scale,” as well as positioning the conflict in a visual relationship with wars of the past through Instagram retro filters. The images don’t appear as raw digital evidence of the now. They are not the type of images that impress upon us the duty of deciding the moral culpability of those depicted. That work has already been done. The retro feel places the images safely in the historic narrative of the nation of Israel, alongside wars whose moral questions have already been settled. Lemmey characterizes the aesthetic of these images this way, “These are the photos you would take if you served in the IDF. We are just like you, and these military decisions are the ones you would take, if you were in our situation.”

IDF soldier on Instagram

Another tactic deployed by the IDF on Instagram is posting photos taken by individual soldiers going about their daily lives. They look sexy, fun, and hip. They suggest to the viewer, we can hang out, we can be friends, even if we don’t know each other, we should. The personal and political completely collapse into one. We’re no longer able to distinguish our feelings about what these soldiers are doing on a moral and geopolitical scale with who we think they are, and how fun it might be to hand out with them. Images of Palestinians, meanwhile, get further from us, less relatable, more other .

The Third Meaning

What distinguishes the IDF’s Instagram feed from my collection of all the Instagram photos taken in Independence Square during the final days of Euromaidan is the intentionality with which the images are created and shared. IDF’s Instagram is clearly propaganda. Some of the photos from Euromaidan are as well, but with others it’s hard to know. Who took these photos? Were they uploaded right away, or later? Who was the intended audience? If they conform to our idea of the recent narrative of Ukraine, who ensures that they tell the correct story, the photographer or the viewer?

Collecting and decontextualizing images in this way has a strange dual effect. On one hand, the conflict becomes very real, close, and almost personal. The rage and fear of the protesters becomes as genuine and immediate as everything else I see on Instragram, like my friends’ lunches and trips to the beach. On the other hand, this conflict is very far away and foreign. The images often seem raw and unfiltered, but also somehow conspicuously planned. They carry extra, incidental meanings. While employing smartphones to instantly capture, contemplate and share images of themselves in unbelievable circumstances, these photographers embed layers in these images beyond their intent and comprehension.

In Image Music Text, Roland Barthes identifies three ways images communicate meaning. The first is informational, the objects and people depicted. The second is symbolic. This is what the informational elements communicate through a shared understanding of the meaning of commonly interpreted signs. The third meaning is the obtuse meaning. This is similar to the symbolic meaning, but is open, incomplete, or perhaps broken. There is a sign, but we cannot give the signified a name. We can’t even be sure that it’s intentional. It’s the aspects of an image that point to meanings beyond language. Barthes talks about it this way,

The third meaning also seems to me greater than the pure, upright, secant, legal perpendicular of the narrative, it seems to open the field of meaning totally, that is infinitely. I even accept for the obtuse meaning the word’s pejorative connotation: the obtuse meaning appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically, it has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language…

Social Images from violent conflicts are most revealing in the aspects that are beyond their intended meaning. As they blend self-referential and documentary purposes, they gain an obtuse meaning that escapes the intention of the maker. This is because the intended audience of the images is the photographer herself and her social network, not history. They gain the third meaning when they become documents of greater historical and political significance. Signifiers that once pointed to some shared meaning are severed, giving the images an aura that comes from dislocation.

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