Blurred Borders: On Mixing Conflict and Fiction

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Instagram photograph purporting to show the firing of a BM-21 Grad
multiple rocket launcher by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, from VV.

My recent writing on Instagram and the potential power of photography as advocacy has led me to revisit a particularly unresolved project of mine. The work, named VV, has never seen the light of day simply because I couldn’t find a way to publish the work that seemed responsible. Disphotic’s recent exposure of an Instagram account which purported to be the work of a Senegalese migrant (but which was in fact a marketing campaign) led me to subsequently argue that the value of advocacy or attention raising for a topic like migration is partly linked to the means by which you try to raise that attention. An irresponsible campaign like the fake migrant account, I argued, might do enough damage to undo any benefit that might have been derived from it, and this was much the same problem that I faced with my project VV.

Another things that brought me back to VV was recently being asked to write about Karl Burke’s work Harvest of Death 2.0 for the British Journal of Photography. For this work Burke takes screen-shots of deaths in a video game, and then re-photographs these screen-shots using the collodion wet plate process, producing images reminiscent of the early battlefield photography produced by the likes of Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner during the Crimean War and American Civil War. Burke cleverly manages to sidestep some of the ethical dilemmas of such an approach through his use of a historic process, which means that even if these photographs were to be taken at face value, the vintage of the events they appear to depict defuses some of the more dangerous confusion that could potentially result.

Like Burke I have been interested for some time in the way the mass media, and particularly entertainment media, shape public attitudes towards violence, and in particular inter-state violence. Because conflict between states is invariably carried out through the proxy of their citizens, in democracies these conflicts require a relatively high level of public support. How this is manufactured is of great interest to me. In 2012 I explored this in a project by juxtaposing fetishistic ‘official’ photographs of Vietnam era weaponry with photographs of the violent wounds caused by those very same weapons. These were two sets of photographs, produced by the same institution, but given very different public exposure for obvious reasons. Combining them seemed to me to reunite two sides of a coin. This project became part of an exhibition I co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte and which explored the wider role of media in the Vietnam War.

These were ideas I wanted to explore further, and development of VV actually began in the autumn of 2013, before the start of the conflict in Ukraine. However the invasion of Crimea seemed to me to give the project additional purpose. I was intrigued by the way this opening episode of the conflict had been so extensively recorded on Instagram. Many Crimean residents took photographs of themselves with the invading Russian soldiers, and these photographs were widely republished in the media. Few of those republishing these images picked up in the ambiguities that many of them held, just tending to assume that they demonstrated that the Crimean people were quite happy to be occupied, when some of these photographs suggested very much otherwise.

VV was meant to blend some of these disparate ideas. Ideas about the subjectivities of the photography, the assumptions we make about images based on the context we find them in, and the prejudices and expectations we harbour about particular subjects. I used Instagram to photograph a fictionalised narrative set in the context of the war in Ukraine. The series of photographs I created recounted in fragmented form the life and death of a fighter on the pro-Russian side, showing the war from his perspective first as a civilian surrounded by escalating violence, then as a new recruit to the conflict, through a battle and finally to his implied death.

One key detail though was that these images were arguably not really photographs at all. Like Burke would later and quite independently do, I had been photographing a computer screen as I played my way through a video game. Years earlier I had come across a prominent case where a British television channel had accidental aired video filmed in a computer game, treating it as genuine film footage of an IRA attack on a British helicopter (viewable here, with the video game footage starting at 0.36). Given how far computer graphics had improved in the intervening years (and assuming tolerance for accepting bad quality photography as evidence had increased as well) I was interested to see if such a thing could be repeated on purpose.

The pixelation and interpolation introduced by a mid-range camera phone proved perfect at covering the details that might give a video game scene away as such, and the added effects of Instagram completed the effect when occasionally needed. The final photographs fooled most people I showed them to (including a class of my students, several editors and an experienced war photographer). I quickly realised that people were generally willing to accept what I showed them at face value, and that relatively few questioned the contents or the images or how I had come across this remarkable account. Those few photographs people expressed misgivings about were easily discarded, leaving a set of photographs so blurred, grainy, pixelated and saturated that it was hard to find enough clues in them to make the judgement that they were fake.

At the same time I tried to make sure my subterfuge was laden with clues that would give away what was taking place to anyone who really cared to check. My protagonist shared his name with a prominent Russian folk hero renowned for his treacherous behaviour in the service of the Russian state. With the help of a Russian speaking friend I replaced place names and other nouns in the narrative with incongruous Russian words intended to hint at the idea of trickery, manipulation, media, imagery and propaganda. Even the Russian name of the project implied a double meaning, suggesting both a war of nebulous enemies, and a war of uncertain and untrustworthy images.

VV did everything I wanted it to, but to just release the work and see what happened seemed dangerous at a time when there was so much misinformation around the conflict. It was all too easy to imagine an image like the one above being seized on by either side in the conflict as evidence of the other’s indiscriminate conduct. This problem only became more acute after the downing of flight MH17, and the ensuing battle to apportion blame, one waged in part with photographs. After more than a year of searching for an anwser I just couldn’t find a solution to this problem and so I shelved the project. David Campbell made the interesting point that being a journalist is not so much about where you draw your salary from, but also from the set of ethics and practices you ascribe to, and what you will and won’t do. As the discussion around the Instagram migrant reveals, we all live by a different code of ethics and for some jobbing journalists (and marketeers) this ethical benchmark falls much lower than for others who sometimes don’t even carry a press card.

I desperately wanted to produce a project that would have the same reach as the Instagram Migrant account has had. I wanted to show people how dangerous and deceptive the photographs they encountered online could be, and I wanted to equip people with a set of basic critical tools they could employ when approaching images (a project I’m still working on, and which at least might still see the light of day). But I could find no way to publish this work in a way that I could live with. And so the answer was simple, I simply didn’t.

One thought on “Blurred Borders: On Mixing Conflict and Fiction

  1. Complex.

    Maybe the appropriate way to release it is as a part of a filmed response to its presence. Show some folks it on-camera, get their opinion, then tell them the reality. The ‘kernel’ is still the film, but the hard outer shell is a thorough exploration of its wider ability to fool ‘some of the people some of the time’.

    Your head is in this stuff all the time, but not everyone else’s is. Maybe you need to guide some folks as to what the appropriate questions are that need to be asked of stuff like this and the people who present it, in order to establish veracity; what DO you ask, where do you look, how will you interpret what you find out, and then, what can you reasonably (and crucially, responsibly) do with that information.

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