Very Long Tables: A First Sounding of Photography of the War in Ukraine. | Annette Vowinckel | Freitag, 20.05.2022

Photo Politics: Ukraine vs. Russia

The current war in Ukraine was launched by Russia in February 2014, with an attack on Ukrainian territory and the subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. From February 24, 2022, the Russian offensive reached new heights, with simultaneous strikes by the Russian Army on the north, east, and south of Ukraine, and moves to take Kyiv. Attempts to seize the capital and establish a Ukrainian puppet regime have failed—but an end to the war is not yet in sight. Several Ukrainian cities have been razed to the ground. Atrocious war crimes have been widely reported in the Western press and social media, and in part already verified by independent observers.
I first encountered images of the war on February 24, when an outraged crowd rallied at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to protest against Putin and his war. When night fell—early, it still being winter—the Gate was lit up in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. This left on me a first and lasting impression of the visual war that continues to parallel the war being fought with tanks and artillery.
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Anti-war rally at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, February 24, 2022 (photo: Annette Vowinckel)
It is a truism that wars are lost and won not only on the battlefield but also in the hearts and minds of everyone involved. Documentary photography has proved, in this regard, to be anything but “objective.” It has been a means to shape public opinion, for instance, by portraying protagonists as either sympathetic or unlikeable, by stirring all sorts of emotion, from enthusiasm to anger to compassion, or by providing evidence of war crimes.
Digital media and networked forms of communication have turned out to be a catalyst, indeed a real shot in the arm, for visual communications in wartime. For one thing, the sheer number of freely floating images has massively increased, and their transmission has become much faster, as more people than ever are taking pictures with smartphones and posting them in abundance on social media. Newer genres such as the meme, TikTok video, and (re-tweeted) tweet further propel them far and wide. And alongside the classic news programs and illustrated magazines, photojournalists have developed the photo blog, the photo diary, and other novel formats.
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Meme: Operation Z, circulating on social media
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Photo diary by Alessio Mamo, The Guardian
People tend to think that we understand images intuitively. However, in a world where fake news and alternative facts can circulate almost freely, it is crucial to understand that every image has a context, that every context has its history, and that visual media literacy does not come naturally to most of us; it is a skill that needs to be acquired, honed, and applied. Only then will we manage to spot disorienting disinformation.
I have long argued that “propaganda” is a historic term for a kind of communication that is based on a subcomplex model of sending and receiving messages. Yet this outdated model is precisely what we are seeing now, on the Russian side (fig. 1d); and the Ukrainian video Close the Sky over Ukraine, screened by Zelensky during his speech to the US Congress, likewise conveys a very clearcut message. Seeing this has prompted me to call into question my previous definition of the term. It has further prompted me to think about whether Putin’s Russia has already become a full-fledged totalitarian system that uses propaganda (without “scare marks”), simply in order to brainwash its citizens. In combination with “news” ranging from misleading information to blatant lies, visual propaganda clearly plays a role in upholding a totalitarian regime in Russia and in gaining support among ordinary Russians for the country’s “denazification campaign.”
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Official photograph from the Russian Presidential Press Office
Since World War II, we have witnessed an abundance of civil wars over issues that were rarely “black and white,” and often so complex as to require quite an effort to grasp who was fighting whom, and why. The civil war in Lebanon (1975–90) was a case in point. In contrast, the motivation for Russia’s attack on Ukraine is almost stunningly transparent. It is the attempt of an imperialist country, led by a ruthless dictator, to subdue its neighbor at any cost and—as evinced by the hospital bombings and mass rape, for example—with zero regard for the violation of human rights and international law. We may well have learned in kindergarten that “there are two sides to every conflict,” and that compromise is therefore the proper solution. But this is clearly not the case, here. So, if it sounds at times like I’m siding with Ukraine, then: because I am.