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Aerial view of destruction, protestors, smoke during the day from afar
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Scene from Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), February 20, 2014

Source: Vincent Mundy/Panos

READING UKRAINE’S PICTURES

Why the Pictures From Kiev This Week Were Everywhere

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?

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?

2 men looking out of window onto protesting below during the day

Source: Brendan Hoffman/Getty

Men look out at a large crowd gathered on Independence Square on February 21, 2014, in Kiev.

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 Instanbul’s Taksim Square and now Kiev’s Independence Square.

Police in riot gear holding up shields to protect themselves with fire in the background

Source: Anatolii Boiko/AFP/Getty

Police reportedly fired rubber bullets at stone-throwing protesters, responding with smoke bombs after protesters hurled paving stones at them as they sought to get closer to the heavily fortified parliament building. Kiev, February 18, 2014.

Lines of police with riot gear

Source: Anatolii Boiko/AFP/Getty

Riot police officers gather as they clash with protestors in the center of Kiev, January 22, 2014.

Aerial view of protesting activities during the day

Source: Bulent Kilic/Getty

Protesters stand behind burning barricades during a skirmish with police on February 20, 2014, in Independence Square in Kiev.

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.”

Army lined up marching as they walk towards the camera during the day

Source: Genya Savilov/Getty

‘Maidan’ self-defense troops rally in Kiev on January 29, 2014, marking the 96th anniversary of a battle near the small city of Kruty.

Lined up police in riot gear

Source: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty

Internal troops of Ukraine deploy near Independence Square in Kiev on December 10, 2013.

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.

Smoke and protestors during the day

Source: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty

Anti-government protesters continue to clash with police in Independence Square on February 20, 2014, in Kiev.

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.

Man with rain coat looking into camera carrying bags during the day

Source: Bulent Kilic/Getty

A protestor carries food for demonstrators on the barricades during the face-off against heavily armed police on February 20, 2014, in Kiev.

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.

Man in as mask surrounded bysmoke

Source: Sergei Supinsky/Getty

A man stands near a mannequin wearing a gas mask set on a barricade erected by protesters with debris from a burnt children’s clothing shop, Kiev, January 24, 2014.

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.

Fire and protestors surrounded

Source: Bulent Kilic/Getty

Protesters fight catching fire as they stand behind burning barricades during clashes with police on February 20, 2014, in Kiev.

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.

Michael Shaw is the creater of visual news blog BagNewsNotes.

Cover Image: Anastasia Vlasova/Corbis

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