Spc. Lee Davis
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Seen through a night-vision device, paratroopers conduct a raid on a suspected terrorist's home in Fallujah, Iraq. The Soldiers are assigned to the 82nd Airbourne Division's Company B, 1st Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
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What web clicks taught me about war photos

12.08.08 | Florence Waters

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A shift in attitude towards war photography is taking place on the Internet.

While analysing patterns of web clicks on media images, I've noticed that photos of the heroic or tragic moment in war receive much less interest than I would have predicted.

The snapshot worthy of historic war photographers like Phillip Jones Griffith has all but lost its power on the contemporary (Internet savvy) audience. Here are some recent reasons why I think that's happening – along with some of the kinds of war images that are dominating at the moment.

(This arguement is based on rough analysis of web stastistics i.e. the greater number of clicks an image gets when it is posted on the same media-sharing site, the more interest I assume the image to have generated.)

This heart-wrenching image, for example, was taken at the weekend at (what claims to be) the horrific site of a bombed out apartment block in Georgia.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/2523872/Violence-rages-in-Georgia.html?image=22

The subject - innocent mother and child, war-torn home - combined with the disorientating camera angle, make it a classic of the sort of formula that has developed for the iconic western war picture.

The shocking photograph received surprisingly little attention on the web media aggregator I placed it on today.

Not only are we becoming hardened to these kinds of images, but audiences are beginning to actually trust them less. A blog or a comment can destroy the poignancy of such an image with the click of a button.

After seeing the above mentioned image I came across an interesting comment at the end of a Telegraph article, which made reference to the site where that picture was taken.

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/2539171/Georgia-Russia-says-South-Ossetia-offensive-nearing-completion.html)

A Russian blogger, who posted under the name Dmitry, wanted to highlight to the “west” how inaccurate and warped the western media view of the Georgia/Russia conflict is.

“If to trust your mass-media the full idiocy turns out: Russia has attacked and has demanded condemnation of aggression defenders. This variant could be funny, if was not absolutely silly. But you mass-media say that. And you have believed.”

According to him, this image was not taken at a bombed site in Gori. HE thinks it was an apartment block fire (perhaps this says more about the Russian propaganda than it does western pictures).

Dmitry thinks the images in our “western” papers give us the wrong idea about the conflict. In order to demonstrate his point, Dmitry left a long list of images. These pictures were, he said, interesting because unlike the Western media, they aren’t biased against Russia. They are by local photographers.
The real point is that the images he left links to are undeniably different to our “western” photographs. They include victims being helped, war zones being emptied.

http://pics.vesti.ru/p/b_260899.jpg  

http://pics.vesti.ru/p/b_261126.jpg  

He goes on to point out photos that have been apparently staged by Georgian propaganda.

The difference between Dmitry’s photos and The Telegraph’s slide show reminded me of Julian Stallabrass’ post of 06/08/08. Julian pointed out the difference between the hard-hitting American photographers and the more lyrical Vietnamese photographers during the Vietnam War. While the stylistic differences between the photographs in this war are not so clear cut. However our access (literally a click away) to both pictured sides of the story means that we don't altogether trust either side.

Who knows if Dmitry was telling the truth (perhaps he was working for somebody)? But the sincerity of the writing, the sheer length of the post (his poor English taken into consideration), and the fact that he willingly left his e-mail address urging anyone with questions to contact him, all testify to his integrity.

A few months ago, Robert Fox’s blog post Truth and other casualties of war (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/25/iraq.middleeast) pointed out the case of the American photojournalist Zoriah Miller, a freelance photographer, who was embedded with a US marine unit at Fallujah two years ago.

After posting pictures of a scene of a suicide bomb attack, without US permission, he was banned from all US military sites in Iraq, and lost his embed.

“He had agreed, apparently, not to divulge "any tactics, techniques, and procedures witnessed during operations", and not to provide "information on the effectiveness of enemy techniques".”

Not long after I read this, there followed in the news the spectacularly embarrassing release of Iran’s photoshopped missile test photograph. (Incase you missed it, read about it here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/2282030/Iran-doctors-images-of-missile-test-after-dud-fails-to-fire.html)

Iran did a terrible photoshop job on a picture of their failed missile test. Unsurprisingly these pictures (the before and after doctoring missile pictures) did fantastically well on the Internet. Not only did they get hundreds of thousands of clicks in one day (if not more), but there also erupted a series of satire war images (which did equally well in terms of audience).

The so-called satirical Iran vs. America “Great Photoshop War” was waged. Here are some of my favourites:

http://www.geekologie.com/2008/07/more_iranian_missile_photoshop.php

http://i37.tinypic.com/2ylmm9z.jpg

http://www.demotivate.info/2008/07/19/america-vs-iran-the-great-photoshop-war-of-2008/

Interestingly, in Internet satire, drawings hold as much weight as photographs.

 

Take this photo of a dead body of a US soldier, covered in an American flag, being loaded aboard a passenger flight back home from Iraq.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/06/05/arts/final-salute-600.jpg

Passenger’s faces look out of the window at the Iraq they think they see. The comfort of the commercial airline, the apparent safety of a familiar company name, the material safety of the window screen, provide a naïve curtain that removes them from the casualties of war. But they’re frustratingly unaware of the reality that is taking place below. This photograph (originally on the NY Times site) was passed around hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide on the day it was posted. I was interested by the raging success of such an image, compared to the victim of war photograph, which has a much more immediate effect.

The web community is becoming hyper-aware of this: Despite a photograph’s claim to take us closer to the action the media can actually make us feel – paradoxically – very removed from the reality.The danger is, even when the truth is staring us in the face, we might just walk on by:

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3218/2621853518_90f18fddef_o.jpg

 

I apologise for the tangle of links I’ve dropped here; The marvels of blogging! Thanks for bearing with me.