Photobomb: Social media and Social Change in a World of War

The Photobomb series of events in Humanities in Public’s War strand enlightened guests to the political potential of photographs online in a world increasingly mediated by social media.

A display of images by ActiveStills

A display of images by ActiveStills

War and conflict are topics frequently represented and depicted in the mainstream media, whether it’s the image of a dead Syrian boy or a collage of famous landmarks lit up in the colours of the French flag. Witnessing these images has become a daily occurrence. One could argue we have almost become desensitised to these images of conflict.

These issues and many more were explored in the ‘Photobomb’ series in Humanities in Public’s WAR strand. ‘Photobomb’ explored the changing role of the photograph in sites of contemporary conflict, with a focus on social media and activist photojournalism.

In a world increasingly mediated by social media, the nature of the photograph is changing. The photograph is no longer nostalgic and no longer a way of remembering the past, but an expression of what is happening now: with this change the ‘selfie’ was born.

The political nature of selfies was discussed in ‘Photobomb: A Dialogue’ with Jenna Brager, artist and PhD candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Adi Kuntsman, lecturer in infocomms at MMU. Adi spoke about selfie militarism: a trend of civilians and soldiers using ‘selfies’ from battlegrounds to support the army and advance their political message.

She discussed the cases of a soldier who posted images online that he had taken down his rifle site and a female Israeli soldier who created an album titled ‘The Best Days of My Life’ with images of her military life. Images such as these, which are becoming increasingly normal online, aid in “the incorporation of military violence into the ordinary and everyday”. The ‘selfies’ of soldiers beautify and normalise war.

In the ‘Body/Cam’ workshop, also run by Brager, participants were encouraged to consider how they engage with the images posted on social media and respond with their own artwork. Images posted online have become instant, and almost disposable: easily deleted with a click of a button.

Rado, an artist interested in the politics of viewing, made a sign saying “LOOK AT ME”, whilst another participant, Nicola, PhD candidate, reflected on the reality behind images posted online by drawing the background to a selfie taken in front of military action.

Questions surrounding the reality behind images on social media have gone viral in recent weeks after Instagram model, Essena O’Neill, posted images with captions telling us the truth behind the image, from the amount of time she spent getting ready to take a photo to the amount of shots taken before she got the perfect one.

The fact that social media can be used by anyone for any purposes, from an Instagram model to a soldier shows that social media is our own media. A media for and of the people, which is separate from the mainstream. A media in which everyone has a voice and anyone can post images.

Proof of this is the role social media has had in various revolutions and protests worldwide, from the Egyptian revolution to the London riots of 2011. Mahmet Kacmaz from NARPhotos spoke about how social media helped the protests against a proposal in Istanbul to build a shopping mall on the Gezi Park site in 2013. Social media sites were used to rally 3 million activists across 79 cities, and the images shared on social media of the protests helped to spread the message. NARPhotos a collective of photojournalists eager to use their art to “understand and express” the world.

Our role as witness and photojournalist online has become increasingly politicised as a result. The role of the photographer, in the words of Oren Ziv, activist photojournalist for ActiveStills, “can never be objective”.

ActiveStills is a photographic collective based in Israel, who strongly believe that photography is a vehicle for social and political change. Oren spoke at an event entitled ‘Activist Photojournalism’ with Simon Faulkner of theManchester School of Art and Mehmet Kacmaz. ActiveStills embrace the idea that the photograph is a powerful means of showing reality: the reality about politics and the reality about war. Oren said “We thought people should be aware of what was going on”.

The photojournalists were asked about the role of their images as opposed to the mainstream media as the floor opened to questions. Oren replied that the media would never use their images, as their “political agendas are completely different”.

ActiveStills’ work was exhibited alongside that of the participants from the ‘Body/Cam’ workshop. The exhibition, curated by ActiveStills and Simon Faulkner from the Manchester School of Art, was split into three strands. One displayed the use of ActiveStills’ work in street exhibitions and protests, another showed people surviving in the realities of war, and the final strand was a jarring display titled ‘Obliterated Families’.

The ‘#ObliteratedFamilies’ project, complete with hashtag, showed the smiling faces of young children who were unaware of their fate. Putting faces to innocent victims is something done in the #NotABugsplat project. In this project, a group of artists try to prevent innocent deaths by causing soldiers operating US military drones to question who it is they are killing, and what for. However, the obliterated families display also highlights the remainder of the family, which is no longer intact.

Another of the displays features people living in places of war and conflict, including a couple getting married, and a family dressed as Navi from Avatar heading to a demonstration. What this display speaks is about how people not only survive, but live. It shares the reality of individual people living in real horrific situations.

The work of ActiveStills and NARPhotos offers a different kind of view than that we are used to seeing in the mass media. Their images unsettle the traditional presentation of war we, as Western witnesses, are used to and unsettles our assumptions – instead revealing to us the multidimensional realities of war.

The ‘Photobomb’ series questioned our role in the face of an increasingly violent world continually influenced by social media and technological advance. What we post online has the potential to be political.

Oren and Mahmet have the potential to change the world with their art, and so do we.


This was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website.

This event was part of Humanities in Public’s WAR strand.

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