Crimea ‘selfskies’ condemned by media

A filter speaks a thousand words: Do images like these alter how we feel about war?

During the turmoil in Ukraine, using mobile phones to take ‘selfies’ alongside Russian soldiers is all the rage. Are these photos and popular apps like Instagram desensitising us to war?

Crimea is in crisis. The West has condemned its occupation by Russian troops and what it believes is an illegal referendum about splitting from Ukraine. There are fears of a wider Russian invasion.

The Daily Mail is apoplectic. Not over Russia’s occupation, but over a new trend for selfies – or ‘selfskies’ as the paper likes to call them — in which ordinary people in Crimea take pictures of themselves posing with Russian soldiers.

‘Selfies’ are often criticised for being narcissistic. Taking pictures of yourself with a mobile phone in a bizarre situation, such as at funerals, has raised eyebrows before. But now these tense scenarios of conflict or near-conflict strike many as inappropriate backdrops too.

But the use of camera phones and popular picture-sharing apps, such as Instagram and Hipstamatic, have also become a popular way for professional photojournalists to document war. In 2011, iPhone pictures of US soldiers in Afghanistan taken by an award-winning photojournalist, appeared on the front cover of The New York Times.

On seeing the images, one critic declared that photojournalism was dead, and a debate over the newspaper’s decision to use them rages on. Using trendy apps and filters to depict serious, gritty war, enhancing colours and making the overall result more attractive, is blurring the line between photography and photojournalism.

But apps also help show the world the more mundane, less dramatic side to war, in the same way that ‘selfskies’ reveal a new dimension to events in Crimea. War photographers say that apps like Instagram capture moments that might otherwise not be seen by the world, and allow them to capture more natural images. A mobile phone used as a camera can be smuggled into dangerous situations too.

Shooting from the Hipstamatic

Using apps like Instagram to take photos of cute kittens is one thing, but using them to depict war is quite another. Photojournalists have a duty to produce authentic images which inform audiences about serious topics, not create attractive pictures which trivialise war and desensitise us to its horrors. Some say the use of technology to alter images, and functions on apps that allow audiences to ‘like’ them, undermines their use in serious reporting.

But others argue apps make all journalism, even war reporting, more democratic, because ordinary people can capture and broadcast images the professionals might miss or overlook. Compact mobile phones also make taking pictures in difficult, dangerous terrain far easier. Besides, photojournalists are story-tellers, and as long as the content of the photo is authentic, does it really matter if the resulting image is more attractive to look at?

You Decide

  1. Do camera phones and apps anaesthetise us to images that should shock?
  2. When it comes to reporting the news, what are more important — images or words?

Activities

  1. In groups, draw up a list of the pros and cons of being able to take photos anywhere on a mobile phone.
  2. Research the history of photojournalism and find an example of an important and defining news photo. Write a short piece on why it was so influential.

Some People Say...

“The contemplation of things as they are is nobler than a whole harvest of invention.’Francis Bacon”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it really matter what techniques photographers use?
Photojournalism might strike you as being a specialist topic, but images are vital because they enable viewers to understand what’s going on in the world and help form people’s opinions. Pictures of war can be distressing, and even change the course of history. News photographers must therefore ensure their pictures are accurate — in the past, photojournalists have been fired for altering their images too much.
Ok, but selfies are just harmless fun, right?
They can be, but they also raise questions: some warn that they reveal an obsession with our looks; at worst, they can be offensive, and even dangerous. Modern technology can enhance our lives by recording important moments and memories, but it can also bring out the worst in us.

Word Watch

Crimea
The Crimean War, fought between 1853-1856, came just after the invention of photography and the electric telegraph. The Smithsonian Magazine described it as the ‘first armchair war which a distant public could experience as a kind of spectacle.’
Funerals
Taking ‘selfies’ at funerals became popular after Barack Obama, David Cameron and the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, took one at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
Cute kittens
Meryl Alper, a student at the University of Southern California, wrote in her thesis last year: ‘Consider Nick Ut’s photograph of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalmed village – simulated on digital Polaroid paper in between photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed.’
Instagram
A photo-sharing network service which allows users to take photos, apply a digital filter to them, and then upload them on to social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It was launched in 2010 and now has over 100 million users. Hipstamatic is similar, although not as popular.
Authentic
In recent years, photojournalists have come under fire for taking misleading photos. A recent UN photo of a very young Syrian refugee boy appearing to be all alone in the desert, provoked public sympathy. Yet it later emerged that his family were just out of shot.
Narcissistic
A term originating from Greek mythology. The young Greek Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and later turned into a flower — the narcissus.

Subjects

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