Lo-Fi Diplomacy: Instagram in the Warzone

Quirky portraits and elegant plates of food, or wounded civilians and shattered cities: what will be the subject of the most important Instagram photos of the next five years? While photo sharing apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram have enjoyed increasing popularity with the casual smart phone user over the past few years, they have also been put to use for journalistic purposes. As the availability of smart phones has increased, so has the ubiquity of wireless networks needed to operate them. Social networking services—especially those focusing on images—have the potential to provide an unprecedented view into the lives of other people, including victims of humanitarian and political crises.

Since Mathew Brady and his associates first brought images of the American Civil War battlefield to the public, photographers have played a prominent role in the history of conflict, both as documentarians and as agents of change. At different times, they have acted both as supporters of the war effort and promoters of peace. For example, the famous image “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was used to support the Vietnam War effort through war bonds, while photographs of the horrors of the Vietnam War played a prominent role in turning the American public against it.

Conflict photographers maintain an important presence on the modern battlefield. For the moment, most of their work is done using combinations of lenses and cameras that cost more than a used Honda Accord, but that’s not always the case. Damon Winter, Pulitzer Prize winning staff photographer for the New York Times, captured a series of photographs of American soldiers in Afghanistan using his iPhone and the Hipstamatic app that ultimately found their way on to the front page of that publication (two of the photos are displayed as homepage images for this article).

Photojournalists have expressed their attraction to the ease with which their work can be shared with the masses through photo sharing apps, Instagram in particular. For his article in the British Journal of Photography, Olivier Laurent asked numerous professionals about their perspective on the subject. Some describe the usefulness of Instagram for communicating with fans and followers, but others have put it to more serious uses. John Stanmeyer, for example, used Instagram to broadcast word of a Sudanese water crisis while working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Laurent writes,

“Stanmeyer started using Instagram when he worked for National Geographic, and has since continued to share both personal images as well as photographs relating to his assignments – most recently when he was in South Sudan with Médecins Sans Frontières … A few days before he boarded his plane, he talked with Jason Cone, head of communications with the NGO in the US. ‘We discussed the option of going as far and wide as possible, to raise awareness by both using print and social media. We wanted to reach an additional quarter of a million Médecins Sans Frontières' Twitter followers, tens of thousands on Facebook, and even more on Instagram.’ To achieve that, Stanmeyer emailed Ken Geiger, National Geographic's assistant director of photography, asking if he could publish some images about this crisis on the magazine's Instagram account. ‘Once in Nairobi, his email arrived with an emphatic yes, allowing these important issues to reach nearly 200,000 additional minds.’"

While these professionals may have been some of the first to explore Instagram’s humanitarian potential, the system is open to anyone with a smart phone and access to wireless Internet. As a result, residents of the same regions in which photojournalists and conflict photographers are currently gathered have started sharing their own photographic perspective on the biggest news stories of the day.

The recent conflict in Gaza illustrated this trend poignantly.  The Huffington Post shows that civilians and soldiers in both Israel and the Gaza Strip uploaded a large body of images depicting day-to-day life, political messages, and the aftermath of falling bombs. Aware of it or not, these Instagram users improved the photographic record of this conflict and spread international appreciation of the situation on the ground. Contributions like this are even more important in places that professional journalists struggle to reach. Consider, for example, this compilation of Instagram images from the civil war in Syria, which has been notoriously inaccessible and dangerous for journalists. Admittedly, this collection also testifies to one of the pitfalls of viewing conflicts through the Instagram filter: it's difficult or impossible to determine exactly which of these images are authentic and which, in fact, depict demonstrators outside of Syria.

Instagram photos from the Gaza conflict point to another shortcoming of this platform. Photographer John Edwin Mason, who teaches History of Photography at the University of Virginia, points out in his article comparing pro-Gaza and pro-Israeli Instagram accounts that it is easy to find examples of Israeli soldiers posting images during the conflict from their personal phones but much more difficult to find images taken and shared by Gazans in Gaza. It is far easier, he explains, to find photos of pro-Gaza demonstrations or the work of professional photographers copied and redistributed through Instagram. This trend indicates that many individuals, both in Gaza and around the world, want to take part in the conversation (or perhaps shouting match is a better term) but lack access to either smart phones or cellular networks. Given the incredible poverty experienced by most Gazans, this hardly comes as a surprise.

No matter how technology changes, professional photojournalists will remain vital. Their expertise and dedication enables them to provide a narrative of current events that strives to remain non-partial and accurate and allows a striking glimpse into the experience of human beings in extreme circumstances.

However, in regions around the world, even those gripped by war, people are looking for opportunities to share their lives and their struggles through pictures. As Instagram continues its rapid international expansion, other photo sharing apps appear, and the technological infrastructure for mobile photo sharing spreads, app users from around the world will be able to access a near-constant stream of real time views from more and more of the world’s communities. Before long, we may be able to browse an instantaneous stream of photographs from around the world over a morning cup of coffee—and many of those images may well be flying in from the front lines of wars, massacres, and humanitarian disasters.

This year, Instagram went to war. For the conflict photographer, it offers a way to immediately connect and communicate with admirers and on lookers. For the soldier, it offers a way of documenting his or her experience with war. And for the suffering civilian, it offers a channel through which to express anger and fear. There is reason to believe that platforms like Instagram and Hipstamatic will be a continuing presence on the battlefield. Hopefully the content they produce will make it easier for the international community to respond to humanitarian disasters and violent war crimes while enabling the average user to gain perspective on the lives of others. Despite its famous filters and special effects, Instagram may yet help humanity to develop a clearer picture of world events and the human experience.