Framing War Through Photography
Kateryna Iakovlanko examines our images of war, asking about what's been included, what's been left out, and why.
People growing up in Donetsk, one of Ukraine's breakaway regions (or spaces like this), often try to come to grips with these places and Kateryna Iakovlanko, our speaker today, is no different. First she worked with documentaries looking at the way heroic stories are constructed in the region, but then the war broke out and shit got too real. But she continued trying to engage with violence in a visual way.

Her PhD ended up being how these narratives can be communicated without words, and she was drawn to the kinds of posters popular during times of war. Donetsk region, and Donbas in general, is a place deeply defined by its history as a place populated by miners and industrial workers, and a lot of the posters from WWII happened to have miners and workers with weapons. So even seventy years ago it became quite normal to imagine regular people with weapons, militarized. A visual history was created, and it became important not just to hear but to show that people naturally fight for their region. This is the kind of narrative that was tapped into when Donetsk and Luhansk rose up against the government in Kyiv in 2014.

Nowadays we don't just look at posters for examples of how visual culture is created – mediums like art, movies and cinematography are also huge. But social media and the internet are probably the most significant. She wants us to analyze a particular way that power was constructed visually: through viral videos of young Donbas militants destroying installations and property of an art collective called Isolatsiya.
Isolatsiya is an art collective that used to be based in Donetsk – people fled to Kyiv at the start of the fighting and it's remained there for now. DNP (Donetsk People's Republic) fighters seized the original building and sorted through the art – the kind of criticisms leveled ("this is pornography...this is propaganda") ended up being quite public. One thing that became particularly symbolic was the shooting of a conceptual sculpture made by an artist of Crimean Tatar descent.

This doesn't just happen in Ukraine – other places have similar situations. Raise your hands if you've heard of one, Kateryna asks. You have people, soldiers in this case (or officers), who don't identify as art critics but take upon themselves the responsibility to judge what's art and what isn't. The soldiers in one video (where they were destroying art) were saying that things should have been more like Socialist Realism. If you want to have art about miners, the criticism goes, it should be a realistic piece that looks like a miner. Or if it's about patriotism or heroism, you need to have an image of glory. Not the kind of layered images produced by contemporary artists.

But what's interesting isn't just that they tried to justify their destructive acts with some kind of theory – it's what the visual product (the video) itself presents and constructs. Every time someone destroys art on camera is a way of trying to communicate something to the audience. It defines what's okay and what's not okay. It affirms structures of power and, in a way, people are performing their values for the public. It isn't just about showing the result of violence, but the process of violence itself.

She describes the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 to be a defining moment in broadcasting – for that whole morning, terrorism and violence physically entered every home. Specifically through the visual medium of video. This helped Al Qaeda achieve their goals because it projected into everyone's house that America was weak, that terrorists have power. And it happened that visual tools were the instrument of that power. We became afraid. The video from Donetsk is in the same vein.
We can also think about the ways visual images of conflict get disseminated in our societies, and why. There was a photo taken in Donetsk near the beginning of the war of two different women. One, Irina Dovgan, was pro-Ukraine and one was pro-separatism – the latter one kicked the Irina in an act of humiliation. It became a viral hit, instantly, all over the news. This, they said in Kyiv, is what these people in the east are like. This is the truth.

But we don't ask anything about the photo itself: what was the context? Was this part of a bigger conversation? Who was the photographer, and what did s/he want to express here? Did s/he have the ability to stop this? Did s/he think not to because that would affect their access to the region? And we don't think about whether this happens elsewhere.

Which it does: in Chernigov region there was a photo shared by the Nationalni Druzhini (a patriotic, pro-Ukrainian semi-paramilitary group) of a pro-Russian tied to a telephone pole. Humiliation, but by pro-Ukrainians this time, and it didn't make the news at all. Not in Ukraine, anyway. Do we ask these questions about the images each side produces? Who produces them, which ones are spread, and how we should respond to them?
It all gets into whether or not we have a responsibility for the things we take photos of. The Maidan (the 2013-14 protests) is a good example – at first people were taking photos and mostly having fun with them, but as things got more serious it became a matter of responsibility. Because the people who represented things were faced with the fact that there were consequences to what they did or didn't share.

This is why Kateryna isn't on Twitter – for her, the responsibility of communicating something political in such a small space is too much. It's too easy to do something dumb or half-baked. And when people start following or reading you they invest your voice with responsibility. So she doesn't engage there.

A huge example of how people arranged some kind of visual representation with political consequences was the POW march in Donetsk. It took place on the Independence Day of Ukraine, and every Ukrainian soldier captured by DPR fighters was put on the streets and made to march in a walk of shame. It echoed, down to the last detail, videos from a POW march held in Moscow in 1945 when Nazi soldiers were paraded in shame. By mimicking the visual language from seventy years ago, the DPR was trying to create a link between Nazi Germany and the current government in Kyiv. People got the reference, because when the camera went through the crowd they went wild, throwing things at the men and shouting FASCISTS!
The parade of the Nazi prisoners of war, Moscow 1945
The parade of the Ukrainain prisoners of war, Donetsk 2014
Recording something like this can't be neutral because there are so many emotions involved. It can have the same effect the actual event had. And videos that followed suite felt a pressure to be even more aggressive, to be a display of even more power when documenting stuff like this. And social media, more than any other media to date, gives people the instruments to do this. There are no commercials, no other distractions: just the act of humiliation. And you can press replay.

The floor is open to discussion. Many questions:

What responsibility do we have when we show dead bodies, like VICE did in their coverage in Ukraine? What are the dilemmas here?

What priorities does the media have when presenting certain kinds of suffering? What goes under-reported and why? What are the different priorities in, say, Egypt or South Korea?

How does the media lose legitimacy due to the interests involved?

What role does visual media play in creating narratives like the Great Patriotic War?

What pictures are taken of women? What effect does the soldiers-with-kitties genre on Instagram have on public opinion?

ISIS has a powerful social media presence – why is Donbas producing such terrible, clunky things? Where are all their hipsters?

And, for discussion tomorrow: what does it mean when we make terrible things look pretty on Instagram?