...welcome to a media space in which we are consuming hostility and processing raw data and raw propaganda almost as quickly as the war correspondent, the fighter pilot, the governments, the diplomats and the antagonists themselves.
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Updated: 18 November 2012
Social media and smart phones are revolutionizing photography. Together they've radically democratized photography, making it easy for billions of people to make photographs that can be seen by billions more all over the world. Most of these photos are about parties and pets and matter only to the people who made them and, maybe, their families and friends. But some are about much bigger things. Some are about war.
[Click on any image to see a larger version.]
This revolution is no secret. Stephen Mayes, the managing director of the VII photo agency, made these points just this week, in an interview posted on Wired's Raw File blog. And he's certainly not alone.
As fast as the changes have been, over the last decade or so, they've accelerated madly over the last few days. As any historian will tell you, war changes everything.
There's always been more to war than bombs and bullets. Words and images are weapons, too. They're the raw material of the propaganda that's designed to strengthen friends and undermine enemies.
Propaganda has been a part of every war that history knows anything about, and creating and disseminating it has largely been the job of professionals -- war doctors, priests, reporters, photographers, politicians, bureaucrats.
Social media and smart phones have let amateurs in on the action.
Yesterday, Micheal Shaw put his finger on one of the ways that the current fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas government has shown us how social media has changed warfare. He writes that
Up until Wednesday (when Israel's IDF used Twitter as another war front), I would have argued there was still a division between physical and propaganda war. As of this week, the visual data is no longer distant, it's no longer delayed, and in its initial views, it is barely filtered, even if coming from the NYT or the BBC.
In his post, Shaw gives two examples of what he's talking about. Both are tweets with graphic images of suffering attached to them -- children, in Israel and Gaza, who had been gravely injured during a rocket attack. Professionals were responsible for both tweets -- a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, on the one hand, and the BBC's Middle East bureau chief, on the other.
Here, I'm more interested in how ordinary people -- amateurs on both sides of the fighting -- are using social media, and Instagram in particular, to circumvent gate-keepers and take their case directly to a global public. Some of the photographs themselves are the work of professionals. The image at the top of this post, for instance, is a widely distributed AP photo, showing BBC journalist Jihad Masharawi weeping over his son's body at a Gaza hospital. But it was posted by an amateur, and, as far as I've been able to determine, only one of the Instagram posts that I'm showing here is the the work of a media professional. (The Israeli Defense Force has two Instagram accounts. You'll see a post from one of them below.)
We can be certain that the people who posted these photos and images wanted them to be seen by more than just the few people who follow them on Instagram. Each was hashtagged with either #Gaza or #IDF. I found them by simply doing a hashtag search. (Most had multiple hashtags.)
People are using these images in a variety of ways. It's not about reasoned discourse -- that's not something at which images excel. Instead they're about emotions -- anger and grief -- about demonising the enemy and about justifying the actions of one's own side.
Not surprisingly, given the way that propaganda appeals to the emotions, children (or the idea of children) appear in many of the photos. They're the most innocent of victims, and their very innocence makes their corruption by adults all the more reprehensible.
A child's innocence and vulnerability makes his courage all the more admirable. And he serves as an inspiration to his elders.
There's an obvious tit-for-tatness about the photos and images that I've shown so far. But it's worth remembering that the war between Israel and Hamas is radically asymmetrical. Israel's economy dwarfs Gaza's, which is one of the poorest places on Earth. The military might that Israel brings to bear overwhelms anything that Hamas can muster. The toll of death and injury reflects this. As of this writing, deaths in Gaza number well over 40; the number of Israelis killed is 3.
Israel's wealth and power are reflected in its citizens' greater access to social media and camera phones. I've been able to find very few photographs on Instagram that seem to have been made by amateurs in Gaza since the outbreak of fighting. The photos tend to be the work of professionals that non-professionals have harvested from the web, or they show events (such as pro-Palestinian demonstrations) outside of Gaza. Social media and camera phones have certainly opened up tantalizing possibilities for self-representation. But not for everyone. Not yet. (Update: I've changed my mind somewhat on the question of self-representation. See below.)
In contrast, Instagram is full of photos made by members of the Israeli Defense Force. The most interesting of them, as BuzzFeed recently noted, look just like the kinds of photos any 20-something would post -- except for the uniforms and the guns.
I doubt that the people who made these photos and posted them on Instagram thought of them as a form of propaganda (at least, not primarily). But, to the extent that they humanize Israeli soldiers and remind westerners that they're "like us," they do the work of propaganda very well indeed.
The Israeli Defense Force certainly understands the utility of social media. The photo above shows a deft and probably professional hand at work.
And this photo was posted on one of the Defense Force's two Instagram feeds.
I can't find anything on the Hamas side that's similar to the Israeli soldiers' Instagram posts. That's no surprise. Relatively few Gazans can afford the smart phones that are required to play the Instagram game. Gaza's internet infrastructure has surely been significantly damaged during the fighting. Most importantly, the level of devastation in the territory has made anything approaching normal life impossible.
Outside of Gaza it's a different story. Hamas supporters are making their case on Instagram. Many of the photos that they've posted serve to normalize supporters of the Palestinian cause, just as Israeli soldiers' photos make them seem "like us" to westerners. The images above, for instance, seem to have been made in the US. (Any American will recognize the ubiquitous "Honk for x or y or z" sign.)
The photo above is from a Hamas supporter in Cairo.
While I can't find a Hamas Instagram account, many of the photos that its supporters have posted, like the one above, show the same sort of professionalism that some of the pro-Israel images do. (Hamas does, however, have a Twitter account, as does the Israeli Defense Force.)
I'm not sure what this all means. It's clear that what photographer Luca Sage called in a tweet "a new take on conflict photography" is being invented as I type these words. It's probably too soon to say much more than that.
I'll close with a little more tit-for-tat. This little slogan (originally World War 2 British propaganda, by the way) sure does get around.
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Update, 1: 18 November 2012
The image below got me thinking about the question of self-representation. Many similar photos, often showing dead or injured children, appear in the Instagram streams of Hamas supporters. The person who posted this image claims to be a resident of Gaza, and looking at his or her photos, I can see no reason to challenge that assertion. (Some of the people who posted similar images also claim to be in Gaza. It's unlikely that they're all lying.)
Even though "thewalker1" probably didn't make this photo -- it appears in the streams of multiple users -- I now see it as a form of self-representation in the sense that he or she is using the image to send a message for himself or herself. The essence of self-representation, after all, is speaking for oneself rather than being spoken for.
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Update, 2: 18 November 2012
I've spent most of my career teaching and writing about South African history. In the beginning, I was interested in colonial history and, especially, slavery. Recently, I've turned my attention to the history of photography in Africa with South Africa as my primary focus.
So it frustrates me to see something like the image below.
Friends, if you're going to recruit Nelson Mandela to your cause, make sure you know the difference between the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former president of South Africa and the Oscar-winning actor who played him in a movie.
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As always, I welcome comments about this post. But, please, this isn't the place to debate the war.