In Defense of Instagramming Conflict in Crimea

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

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)

Then there's the controversy surrounding the genesis of the images themselves.

In 2007, for example, the filmmaker Errol Morris, over the course of three New York Times blog posts, 15 footnotes, and 24,000 words, entertained the theory that Fenton had staged his most famous photograph, "Valley of the Shadow of Death," perhaps by scattering cannonballs in said valley. Two versions of the picture exist: one with cannonballs on a road, and one with them on the side of the road.

Instagramming conflict is divisive as well. In 2012, the photographer Nick Stern argued that photojournalists using the service were sacrificing authenticity at the feet of Silicon Valley's algorithms and computer programmers. "Every time a news organization uses a Hipstamatic or Instagram-style picture in a news report, they are cheating us all," he wrote. "It's not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It's not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It's the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image."

Cannonballs in the "valley of the shadow of death." (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
Pro-Russia forces seize a Ukrainian Coast Guard base in Balaklava, Crimea. (Alexander Marquardt/Instagram)

Of course, what constitutes reality—and the extent to which photojournalists show or shape it—is and has always been an open question. Ever since Fenton's day, photographers have relied on technology to take and manipulate pictures. And, as Ou argues, photojournalists posting to Instagram are acting as their own editors—communicating what they've just seen all the more directly to their audience.

There's even an academic paper on this subject. Some maintain that “aestheticizing war leads to anesthetizing war,” Meryl Alper, a Ph.D. candidate in communication at the University of Southern California, noted last year. "Consider Nick Ut’s photograph of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalmed village, the thousands of photos of atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib, or Ken Jarecke’s chilling photo of a charred Iraqi soldier during the first Gulf War—each simulated on digital Polaroid paper in between photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed."

British Captain Thomas Longworth Dame. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
A young Cossack in the Crimean capital. (Raul Gallego Abellan/Instagram)

Still, Alper adds, "[V]isual information, historically and at the present moment, continually blurs the lines between photograph and illustration, professional and amateur, and reporting and editorializing."

Fenton recognized these blurred lines as well, arguing that the Crimean War was best captured by newfangled photography rather than conventional illustration (of course, he had a professional interest in saying so). "Simpson who is working for Colnaghi makes only pencil outlines on the ground & puts in the colour from memory," he wrote to his publisher. "Goodall who is here for the Illustrated News has been ill & not doing much[.] His sketches which appear in the paper seem to astonish every one from there [sic] total want of likeness & the nullity & it is not suprising [sic] that it should be so, since you will see from the prints sent herewith that the scenes we have here are not bits of Artistic effort which can be effectually rendered by a rough sketch but wide stretches of open country covered with an infinity of detail."

Fenton's assistant, Marcus Sparling, on their photographic van. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
Journalists covering the Crimean crisis rest at a Ukrainian Air Force base. (Ed Ou/Instagram)

What we're seeing today is another attempt by photographers to capture Crimea in innovative ways—and, as Fenton might put it, "with an infinity of detail."