The old European empires have disappeared. Only a few geographic anomalies remain to hint at their existence. Russia is the one empire that remains basically intact, its outline more or less unchanged since the Romanovs colonised vast expanses of Siberian permafrost in the seventeenth century. This continuity is all the more remarkable when you think about the disparate nationalities and ethnicities contained within Russia’s borders, nearly two hundred of them. Over time we have somehow come to think of what was once an empire of many heterogeneous peoples, as a single country.
Despite some interesting experiments with federation and regional autonomy, nationalism was a recurring and largely unresolved question throughout the Soviet era, the notion of a community based on blood conflicting in so many senses with one that was meant to be based on labour. Joseph Stalin’s sole notable contribution to the Marxist intellectual canon was a stilted essay on the subject, by most accounts written rather grudgingly at Lenin’s behest. Nationalism, it seems, remains no less in problematic in the post-Soviet era, only now with the added difficulty that the libertarian creed of ethnic self-determination has to be counter-balanced against the idea of a vast and unchanging ‘Russia’ which seems to continue to linger in the ornately decorated rooms of the Kremlin.
This has been evidenced by the eight or so conflicts Russia has been involved in since 1991, almost all directly or indirectly connected to the question of nationalism, self-determination and Russian borders. These complex issues and others are now re-emerging again in Ukraine, a country whose history has been always been entwined with Russia’s. Considering the complexity of these topics, the standard of written journalism on the crisis has generally been excellent. Writers of all political leanings have acquitted themselves admirably in unpicking the intricate networks of history, fear, ambition, identity and rivalry that have left us where we are now, with two armies facing each other, the possibility of war resting on a hair trigger.
In contrast to this writing, photographic commentaries on the crisis have been mostly disappointing. This perhaps partly reflects the surprise and speed of the Crimean annexation, which occurred in a matter of hours, while many remained focused on the aftermath of the Maidan protests in Kiev. Perhaps it also reflects that little has happened to be photographed. What can a photograph of an armed, masked man with no identification tell us, apart from the very obvious? Occasional visual references to Fenton’s photographs of the 1853 Crimean war (square crops, shallow depth of field, perhaps a hint of desaturation) are about as sophisticated as the photographic commentary seems to have got, but it’s an aesthetic comparison which offers little real insight into a crisis which is different in so many ways.
For me some of the most provoking photography from Crimea has been accidentally interesting images produced by amateurs. A trawl through image sharing platforms like Instagram reveal non-professional photographs were both amongst the few to show the critical first stage of the annexation, and also sometimes proved to be the most insightful. For me an example of this are the so-called ‘Selfskies’, a term applied by the Daily Mail to describe photographs of Crimeans posing with masked Russian soldiers. On the face of it these photographs are recognisable from past wars. They are reminiscent of the type of propaganda pictures often put out by occupying armies and their press organs to show soldiers as welcome liberators, not hated occupiers. Take a look through Instagram and the same visual cliches abound of young and old with kind, jovial soldiers.
While we are increasingly used to seeing photographs by citizen journalists, it’s interesting to think that perhaps even the role of producing war propaganda might have shifted to civilians as well. To use a word as loaded as ‘propaganda’ here is not to say these people are not genuinely pleased to see the Russians, but perhaps at least part of their motivation for taking these photographs posting them online might lie in responding to foreign criticisms of the annexation. ‘We want them here’ is what their smiles seem almost to say. This type of photograph is after all normally one reserved for close friends and family, in taking one with a masked soldier the implication is one of pre-existing relationship, even if here it consists of the rather artificial one of a shared national identity.
At the same time many of these photographs are ambiguous, and the extent to which they really mark an event that the photographic instigator wants to celebrate is not always clear. In some there is a feeling that this isn’t celebratory but an attempt to mark a grim moment in Ukraine’s history with a photograph, because that’s we do now isn’t it? We photograph accidents, injuries, illness, bereavement, loss. For whatever reason, whether to show to others or store up for ourselves for later viewing and processing. The wide circulation of these images on social media and news websites, often stripped of the little context presumably attached to them when they were first uploaded by the photographers, makes them particularly flexible in meaning. That flexibility is problematic, but not necessarily moreso than the narrow readings possible of a press photograph of a man with a gun, or a shield, or a molotov cocktail.
That the depiction of this crisis should seem to have shifted so much into the hands of civilians is for me very interesting timing. For some time I have been working to bring to light a very unique archive that documents a similar military incursion into the territory of a former province. These photographs too have been taken not by a photojournalist but by an ordinary citizen, not with professional camera equipment, but with a humble camera phone. And yet I think these images offer similarly accidental insights which are often lacking in the regimented, planned photographs of professional observers. Insights into questions of nationalism and identity, but also into the shape and direction of photography and the documentation of conflicts in the twenty first century. I’m currently building a mini-site for the project which I hope to launch in the coming weeks. More information will be posted here, soon.