In Defense of Instagramming Conflict in Crimea

Ukraine and Russia are facing off over a peninsula where, 160 years ago, war photography was born.
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Roger Fenton/anna_yurtaeva

The Daily Mail was positively apoplectic. "Shocking pictures show people in Crimea taking SELFIES with Russian masked gunmen as Ukraine teeters on the brink of war," the British tabloid yelped over the weekend. Did you catch that? SELFIES!

Others were equally astonished. "Welcome to the 21st century, where you take Instagram selfies with the guys invading your country," a Twitter user marveled.

Putting aside one of the explanations for this stream of selfies—a substantial pro-Moscow, ethnic Russian population on the peninsula—it's actually quite fitting that amateur and professional photographers are experimenting with new technology this week to document Russia's occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula. A century and a half ago, Crimea served as the breeding ground for modern war photography.

The Crimean War left many legacies: Florence Nightingale, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," ski masks. But arguably its most consequential one was modern war journalism. The conflict, which pit Russia against Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire over territorial and religious disputes in the Middle East, raged from 1853 to 1856, not long after the invention of photography and the electric telegraph. These technologies enabled William Howard Russell, an intrepid correspondent for The Times of London, to file on-the-ground dispatches about the British government's bumbling deployment of troops, and Roger Fenton, a young London lawyer with little photography experience, to snap the first images of war for a private publisher rather than a government (Fenton actually had two benefactors; British officials chipped in). "It was the first 'armchair war,' which a distant public could experience as a kind of spectacle," Smithsonian magazine once observed.

Now, photographers are once again mediating our experience of a conflict in Crimea. And they're choosing Instagram, which launched in 2010, for specific reasons.

"Sometimes it's a personal space just to show life as it is," Ed Ou, a Canadian photojournalist in Ukraine, told National Geographic on Thursday. "A photograph doesn't have to be front-page news.... What's cool about Instagram is that you can show things that you know won't be used otherwise and might never be seen."

A man beside the grave of the British Brigadier General Thomas Leigh Goldie, who was killed in action in the Crimean War. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)

Ukrainians hold a cross in front of Russian troops occupying a Ukrainian military base near the Crimean capital. (Ed Ou/Instagram)

 

Granted, today's crisis in Crimea is not a war. For all the diplomatic and military activity of the last week, not a single shot has been fired (besides a few warning blasts over the heads of Ukrainian soldiers). Still, there are similarities between Fenton's Crimea and Ou's.

There are, for instance, the many images of conflict as a static rather than kinetic phenomenon. We know Fenton witnessed fighting; “It is not amusing at all hearing the whirr of cannon balls approaching.” he wrote in one letter home. But of the nearly 400 photos that Fenton produced in four months, none depict combat, and very few (a road littered with cannonballs; a cemetery) even hint at the horrors of a war that left hundreds of thousands dead. Instead we see military camps dotting hillsides, soldiers resting at their makeshift barracks, ships docked at harbors. This is in part because action shots were impossible given the time it took Fenton to expose film in his horse-drawn wagon-turned-darkroom. But it may have also been a result of Fenton's efforts to please the British government and sell his pictures to a gore-averse British public.

The Instagrammed photos currently coming out of Crimea capture similarly mundane scenes—a product of the surreal military intervention Vladimir Putin has launched. "From the outside world, it probably seems like what's happening in Crimea is absolutely insane," Ou explained. "But the truth is that life is still going on.... The story most of the world is hearing is a political one. Here it's easy to see life as normal. A lot of the tension is in people's minds."

A group of Croat laborers. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)

Ukrainian soldiers at an Air Force base outside the Crimean capital. (Ed Ou/Instagram)

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. More

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy and a staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.
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