“Consider Nick Ut’s photograph of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalmed village, the thousands of photos of atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib, or Ken Jarecke’s chilling photo of a charred Iraqi soldier during the first Gulf War – each simulated on digital Polaroid paper in between photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed.” – Meryl Alper
It’s an ongoing debate: Should photojournalists use apps like Instagram as they document conflict? And how should they use them?
Some people argue the filters do the work for photojournalists, essentially rendering them useless, since anyone can take a picture using these apps and they’d turn out the same way. Others say it doesn’t matter which tool a photojournalist uses, their trained eye will still capture a moment better than an amateur could. Others are less fixated on whether using apps removes the need for skill, and instead focus on the idea that photography apps that make pictures look faux-vintage induces a sense of nostalgia in viewers, a sense of nostalgia that inevitably dulls the sharp horror of present-day conflict.
It’s a thorny situation. And USC Ph.D candidate Meryl Alper adds another layer to the debate as she looks at whether photos taken from a soldier’s point of view and made to look flawed on purpose are ethical. In a paper called War on Instagram: Framing conflict journalism with mobile photography apps, Alper addresses the debate and concludes that photos meant to simulate a soldier’s day-to-day experience are ethically questionable. Alper doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether using photo filtering apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic are bad or good in a larger photojournalism debate, but she does find the way embedded photojournalists use these tools to portray war from a U.S. soldier’s perspective problematic.
She has a few issues with the way journalists like New York Times staff photographer Damon Winters portray soldiers during wartime. She argues the decision to use professionally shot photographs to represent the experience of a soldier is bizarre considering the amount of documentation going on from the soldiers themselves. “Just considering the wealth of material that soldiers themselves take, that can be judged as portraying whatever message they portray, I think it’s a fuzzy area when those tools are also in the hand of photographers,” she says. “And there’s this assumption that photojournalists, because they have training or ethical obligations, that their photos are somehow in this higher tier or a different category than the same sorts of photos that soldiers are taking with the same sorts of tools.”
Alper also argues that the embedded photojournalist’s perspective is skewed by the close living arrangements they have with the troops. Because they are side-by-side with soldiers, they attempt to capture the U.S. combat experience from that perspective instead of looking at the civilian experience. This skewing is understandable — after all, these journalists must abide by a specific set of rules, and their access to U.S. soldiers is far greater than their access to others in the conflict zone. But at the same time, Alper’s point is trenchant because audiences presented with a disproportionate glimpse into one side of the conflict do not get the unbiased portrayal of the conflict they expect from journalists.
And she argues that using filtered apps makes this bias even more problematic: “The ‘imperfect’ Hipstamatic photographs taken by embedded photojournalists are potentially misleading because they feel as though they might come from the ‘subjective’ perspective of troops rather than the objective perspective of the embedded photojournalist.” So people looking at the photos will think they were taken by the soldiers and not supposedly-disengaged photojournalists because they’re using the same photography tools that soldiers use.
It’s an interesting time for photojournalism, since apps like Instagram have changed the game. During some conflicts, people on both sides have used the app to get their perspective across — and even despots like Bashar al-Assad have opened up Instagram accounts in an attempt to convey a positive online presence, using the casual nature of the app to try and put across an image of a leader in control.
But in other conflicts, as Alper notes, much of the photography used in western media and social media disproportionately represents one side of the conflict. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there were many reasons for this, one being that the vast majority of civilians did not have access to the same smartphone technology that enabled U.S. soldiers to record their day-to-day lives.
This lack of multiple perspectives is felt whenever only one side has access to technology — and that’s very clear with the Instagram photographs coming out of North Korea. Because North Koreans do not have access to Instagram, the only photos outsiders see are taken by the very few press members (and, strangely, Dennis Rodman) who are allowed to use Instagram inside the hermetically sealed nation-state. This includes celebrated photojournalist David Guttenfelder, whose work from the soldier’s point of view Alper critiques. Guttenfelder’s North Korea photographs are different because they don’t presume the North Korean’s point of view, so in that way they aren’t the kind of photos Alper finds problematic, although she does think it’s strange to see Instagram’s faux-vintage filters applied to a part of the world that already looks out of time.
Of course, there aren’t more perspectives out of conflict zones for a few reasons. One, it’s easier for photojournalists from the U.S. to gain access to U.S. troops, and much harder to infiltrate outside cultures. Two, sometimes, as in the case in North Korea and Afghanistan, the vast majority of civilians do not have access to Instagram and similar tools, so they cannot get their photos out there. And last, even when people who have different positions in the conflict do document their experience, if it does not fit within the narrative that the Western media wants to project, these images will be excluded.
As access to technologies like smartphones with powerful cameras and social networks like Instagram continues to grow, this problem may lessen, since more people will be able to tell their own stories. Whether or not the dominant media outlets will choose to include disparate perspectives, of course, is another story.