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.