If the world — meaning the digital public square — has been transfixed this past week by image after image from Kiev, the question to ask is “why?” Why would a conflict in a distant land — one that has been playing out for years and primarily centered around regional issues — suddenly dominate the U.S. media and social media spotlight, as if it were happening not in Independence Square but in Times Square? And why would photos from Ukraine be getting any more media attention than, say, the pictures from a similarly intense upheaval in Venezuela?
Letting the pictures do the talking, let me offer you six reasons why:
1. Hearts and Minds
Revolutions are waged on a media stage as much as they are on the ground these days. As important as it is to capture critical political power, it’s also essential to win over domestic and international hearts and minds. The battlefield, more often than not, is a central square — typically one with historical or nationalist significance and in proximity to the seat of government. If Egypt’s Tahrir Square set the recent standard, we’ve seen as much in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and now Kiev’s Independence Square.
2. Primeval Scenes
It’s probably not politically correct to say it, but these battles are visual infotainment in the Western media — the source of viewer engagement — as much as they are scenes of vital confrontations for justice, freedom or religious and ideological beliefs. What makes the images from Kiev so morbidly fascinating are how primitive and, frankly, cinematic they are, harking back to the days of gladiators. They have circulated widely because they are so primeval. A colleague of mine has referred to these scenes as coming from “Middle Earth.”
3. A Powerful Contest
What makes for a powerful contest is one that continues and builds, as this one has. Another key element is how evenly matched the protesters and military troops have been. Above you see columns of “self defense” troops in contrast with Ukraine’s “internal troops,” with the populist forces giving the professionals as much as or more than they could handle.
4. Clear Foes in a Classic Storyline
The battle in Independence Square has also been popular because, in the West at least, there is an easy storyline with a clear favorite and a classic underdog. Compared with the thoroughly toxic breakdowns in Syria or the Central African Republic, what we have here is a classic Cold War proxy battle. Of course, Western sentiment naturally leans to the Ukrainian populists who want to move closer to the EU in opposition to the Russian-influenced government. This photo, with the statue of founders of Kiev, captures that nationalist and revolutionary spirit.
Also, this conflict has been relatively open to cameras and media attention. This is not always the case anymore as governments, especially authoritarian ones, cast their batons and more lethal weapons not just on protesters but anything that looks like a lens.
5. Beauty in the News
Photography and photojournalism these days have as much to do with art as they do with news. I mentioned how the primeval quality of the photos from Ukraine is so compelling. A conflict like this offers many opportunities for striking visuals. This photo, for example, is a beautiful example of portraiture.
Here, the combination of the fighter and the mannequin wearing a gas mask are endlessly fascinating to the eye. Notice how the green color caroms between the two figures; the two figures peer the same direction; the statue has its own “conversation” going with the figure on the helmet; and the beautiful and the classic play off against the dingy, the violent and the immediate. Even if the photo has little to say about the battle at hand, these types of images are common to find in a news slide show, where clicks are in high demand.
6. The Drama of Conflict
Drama has always played a major role in war and conflict photography. As the government forces upped the ante this week in unleashing hellfire on the opposition, the conflict suddenly became much more cinematic. What caused the standoff in Kiev to explode on Twitter, Tumbler and online news this week, more than anything, was the element of fire. Beyond all the photos of burning tires and barricades, what really got people’s attention were images of protesters and government troops aflame. (You can see the whole sequence here.) To set your mind at ease, by the way, the photographer lets viewers know on the AFP blog that the flames from the petrol bomb were quickly extinguished and that no one (at least no one on the scene) was at all shocked.
Of course, that’s not the same for visual consumers like us.
Why you should care
Images from the violent protests in Ukraine have been all over the news lately, but are you understanding what messages each picture contains?