The violence in Ukraine has now been continuing in various forms for over a year, in which time its events and actors have both courted and eluded visibility. In turn, journalists and image makers seeking to reveal the conflict’s complexities, or to reduce it to simplicities, have employed a full gamut of visual strategies. For the next few weeks on the blog I’ll be focusing on a number of projects and topics related to Ukraine and Russia. From a return look at The Sochi Project’s epic An Atlas of War and Tourism to a rumination on the fascination in the west with the ruins left behind by the Soviet era. By way of introduction to these pieces here is an incomplete recap, a partial anatomy of the war of images in Ukraine.
For many of us on the outside the protests in Kyiv seemed like the opening overture to the conflict, even if to some in the country the causes and effects of events in the Maidan were less clear. Press coverage was intense, but as Donald Weber and others have noted, that coverage often tended towards reduction, towards extravagant scenes of almost medieval battle, or to the fetishisation of the fighters and their weapons. Less often photographers focused the quieter moments, rarer still those away from the centre of Kyiv, although there were some photographing these things. Chris Nunn, whose work will feature in an interview next week, continued to work in the west Ukrainian town of Kalush throughout the events in Kyiv, resisting the draw it exerted on so many other photographers.
If Maidan was the overture, the annexation of Crimea was perhaps the opening act, and one caught from the outset in photographs, particularly non-professional images circulated on the image sharing site Instagram. Widely reproduced were the photographs of Crimeans posing with the unidentified soldiers, the so-called ‘Little Green Men’ who were widely believed to have been Russian Special Forces. These images were quickly dubbed ‘selfskies’ by a largely disapproving global media, perhaps at least in part disapproving because they had been caught so off guard by the annexation, and their own visual response to it proved to be so limited.
Again the tendency was towards simplistic interpretations of these Instagram images, and few noted their ambiguity. The expressions of more than a few of civilians suggested ambivalence, a desire to record a pivotal event, even if the subject was maybe unsure whether that event would turn out to be for good or bad. Others, admittedly a minority, displayed expressions that seemed at times to verge on defiance, even hostility, and captioned their photographs accordingly with phrases like ‘here they come’. There was also a strange ambiguity in the behaviour of the armed men themselves. Even as they were apparently happy to pose for photographs that would span the globe, they had stripped themselves of all identifying markers, an intriguing example of how modern war can negotiate an image hungry world, whilst at the same time still keeping it at arm’s length.
The takeover in Crimea was relatively peaceful, but events in Eastern Ukraine since have been anything but, as an escalating conflict has emerged between the Ukrainian armed forces and a separatist opposition whose precise make-up remains a matter of dispute. Media coverage has been varied, some photographers covering battles that evoke the devastation of the eastern front in the Second World War. More than a few have drawn comparisons between the ruins of Donetsk airport and those cities like Stalingrad. The implications of this comparison seem problematic in the context of a dispute where groups are often labelled fascists or neo-Nazis by their opponents. Other journalists have employed drones and similarly contemporary means to create sweepingly cinematic images and video, which likewise have their own visual power, and bring with them their own problems.
Amongst the melee of war some more specific flashpoints have emerged, where physical military struggles have entwined with visual and evidential ones. The Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 disaster quickly became a debate about visual evidence as both sides in the conflict, and the wider international community which had been affected by the disaster, sought to locate responsibility. On the pro-European, pro-Kyiv side of the divide, grainy images appeared to show a BUK anti-aircraft missile system in the area near the crash, and images were released of wreckage to indicate the correlation of damage with a BUK attack. In response Russian state TV released satellite imagery claimed to show a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the airliner, images later debunked as fakes and then widely parodied by internet users.
In a similar way to the war in Syria, the conflict in Ukraine has also seen the sophisticated use of visual data by activists seeking to apportion responsibility for attacks on populated areas and civilian targets. Coupled with on the ground stills and video of the moment and aftermath of such attacks, damning evidence of crimes by both sides is mounting. Groups like the Bellingcat investigative journalism group have used similar methods in an attempt to demonstrate Russian involvement in the conflict, employing a mixture of direction finding and satellite imagery to locate the launch sites of rocket and artillery attacks inside Russia.
And as this example suggests, there has been the gradual permeation of the conflict across the border into Russia, where official attempts to deny involvement have become increasingly unconvincing. The mothers of missing Russian soldiers clutching portraits of their sons, the photographs of Russians captured in Ukraine, and more recently the images of the wounded tanker, Dhorzhi Batomunkuev and his remarkable account of travelling from the far east of Russia to the front lines of Donetsk, all have undermined this narrative, and have all been heavily evidenced with photographs. With the unrest in Ukraine showing little sign of abating there is no doubt that events there will continue to generate images which set out to disturb or excite, simplify or complicate, evidence or obscure.