Very Long Tables: A First Sounding of Photography of the War in Ukraine. | Annette Vowinckel | Mittwoch, 13.07.2022

The War’s Visual Waif: Loose Ends

Most of the pictures from Ukraine that I have seen since the end of February are easy to label. “Propaganda,” “atrocities,” “destruction,” “resistance,” “daily life,” “heroes,” “scoundrels,” or “government communication” would be suitable tags. Some pictures that I have encountered, however, are harder to place, and they must remain loose ends in my blog series. While many of the images circulating online may be categorized as trivia, with little or no value to the information they convey, others indicate a changing attitude towards photography (and film) as documentary media and of resistance against the war. With the expansion of visual technologies and infrastructures, it’s hard to predict the impact on our perception of the war or on the development of the war itself. Here is an arbitrary selection from the war’s visual waif:
#1: Visual Errors
Various pictures in my own photo library evoke Ukrainian flags where there are none. I took the ones here at a flea market, on the streets of Berlin, and in a train station.
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Egg cups at a flea market in Linow, April 16, 2022; bicycle on Berlin sidewalk, May 17, 2022; travel bag on the platform of the Zoologischer Garten train station in Berlin, March 24, 2022. Photos taken by the author.
I began to consider myself somewhat disoriented, when I discovered a Ukrainian flag in a flower bed. However, this one was real. The flower bed did in fact carry a message from the gardeners, as a nearby heart-and-smiley icon confirmed.
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Flower bed on Tauentzienstraße in Berlin, May 17, 2022. Photos taken by the author.
#2: Russian Wildberry
When I was reading the news online, a supposedly personalized advertisement popped up on the screen. Some algorithm had assumed that I was interested in topics related to Russia and thus suggested that I drink a Schweppes soft drink named Russian Wildberry. While I wonder whether the product will survive the war, the ad makes me ponder the infrastructures of image circulation and the algorithms that determine what shows up on my screen – and how that might affect the perception of war or be used for propaganda purposes.
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A pop-up advertisement for Schweppes Russian Wildberry soft drink, from April 26, 2022; screenshot taken by the author.
#3: Arma 3
During the first days of the 2022 invasion, social media users released video clips with captions that suggested, according to the Reuters News Agency, “that the clips show authentic footage of drone attacks on Russian marine military forces.” This was not real footage, however, but a sequence from the Arma 3 computer game—a fact that was quickly identified by the large community of players of this very popular game. A similar video was shown on Russian public television during the Syrian War. What puzzled me was not the hoax itself, or its rapid exposure, but rather, that it seemed to provoke among Russians nothing more than a shrug.

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Sequence from the Arma 3 computer game circulating online as fake footage of the war; screenshot taken by the author.
#4 Face Recognition Software
Various newspapers, including The Washington Post, reported that the authorities in Ukraine were using face recognition software to identify the Russian soldiers killed in the war. Officials claimed that this was motivated by a wish to inform the soldiers’ families, since the Russian authorities—allegedly—did not. Yet commentators have also described this as a new kind of psychological warfare. Given that the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee launched massive protest against the war in Chechnya in 1999, this does not seem far-fetched. The intent was probably to stir protest among the fallen soldiers’ relatives. In any case, this is an unprecedented kind of visual warfare in the digital age.
#5 The Red Flag Babushka
In early April, Ukrainian soldiers entered the village of Velyka Danylivka near Kharkiv, where they met Anna Ivanovna, an old Ukrainian woman who mistook them for Russian soldiers and welcomed them with a Soviet flag. The soldiers gave her and her husband a bag full of groceries then took the red flag, laid it on the ground, and trampled it. The old woman thereupon handed back the groceries and commented that “her parents died for this flag, and you’re stepping on it.”
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Graffiti of Babushka Anya in Krasnoyarsk, Russia © 2022 PROFIMEDIA IMAGES S.R.L.
A video of the scene soon went viral and was featured also by the Russian public broadcaster Channel One. The old woman, now nicknamed “Babushka Anya” (recalling a Russian food brand) or “Babushka Z,” became a symbol of the “pro-Russian Ukraine” and for the Russian resistance against “Ukrainian Nazis.” A screenshot from the video served as a blueprint for graffiti, and a statue of Babushka Anya was set up in Mariupol. However, as the Riga-based Russian magazine Meduza reported, the Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications at the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy got in touch with Ivanovna and recorded a video, in which she explained that she showed the Soviet flag because she thought the soldiers were Russians. All she wanted was peace, and she was praying not only for Putin (as she had stated in the first video), but for all the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Babushka Anya was obviously involved in a propaganda war against her will.
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Russian occupiers erect a statue to ‘Babushka Z’ in Mariupol, The Telegraph.
I wonder what is going to happen to the Mariupol statue in the long run.
#6 Art and Politics

In May, two young Russian women protested against the war in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. A picture of the event shows Natalya Perova and Lyudmila Annenkova wearing seemingly bloodstained white dresses. The photo circulated on social media, prompting debate as to whether the two were photoshopped into the site or the picture was taken at sunrise when the streets were still empty. In any case it sent out a powerful message against the war. It is easily understood and needs neither a caption nor translation. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, Perowa and Annenkowa were detained for seven days and then released.
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Natalya Perova and Lyudmila Annenkova in front of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow; screenshot taken by the author from Twitter.
There is a long tradition of visual protest against war. May the present one soon take effect.