Bell¿ngcat is a fascinating operation. The site says it is “by and for citizen investigative journalists.” While I’m normally skeptical of much that falls under the name “citizen journalism,” Bell¿ngcat is something altogether different. Researchers there analyze satellite imagery, social media, photos and video from mainstream media, and other sources, to elicit facts about conflicts that might not otherwise be obvious.
I’m always fascinated by how different people interpret the same photograph, and Bell¿ngcat’s work shows just how far this can be taken. What looks like a simple portrait of a person with a gun might actually be able to tell you who the person is, where they are standing, who provided the weaponry he’s holding, and when the photo was taken. This can be achieved by analyzing architecture, vegetation, markings on weapons, the angle of shadows, and so on. What is apparent in a particular image can then be compared with news reports, publicly available satellite imagery, and other data sources, which can lead to incredibly detailed conclusions.
I first became aware of the site early last year, but since then, they’ve had a very successful kickstarter campaign and tons of fascinating investigations into conflicts around the world.
Take a look at a few of these case studies: houses in the background of a soldier’s instagram photo confirms that Russian soldiers are in Ukraine; Wikipedia, holiday photographs, and shoe size conversion charts confirm that cluster munitions are being used in Syria; a sliver of an out-of-focus building in the background of Turkish jihadis’ video gives evidence that it was filmed on the roof of a particular building in Raqqa, Syria, after late September 2014; analysis of vegetation in satellite imagery in Google Earth shows that the Russian Ministry of Defense has been falsifying satellite photos they release; analysis of Paris Match news photos and a youtube video (and other sources) give evidence that the MH17 flight was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian-supplied Buk missile launcher acquired in late June 2014.
Bell¿ngcat is not the only group doing this sort of work, by the way. The New York Times reporter CJ Chivers has been doing munitions analysis through photos and video on his tumblr, in his book, The Gun, and of course in his reporting for the Times. There are consultants who trace munitions around the world, as well, often through imagery but sometimes even by traveling to conflicts. N.R. Jenzen-Jones tracks the movement of arms around the world at his website, The Rogue Adventurer. And Conflict Armament Research researches weapons in the field, reporting to the European Union’s iTrace project, which tracks the movement of weapons around the world.
For a historical example of this sort of photo analysis, look at this old post about determining the date and time a late 1800s photo was taken or Errol Morris’ investigation into a Crimean War photo by Roger Fenton.
A word of warning: Be very careful looking at this sort of stuff online, and always consider the source. One wrong click and you’re down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole where there’s a political motive behind every photo, all of which are staged. The 2006 Lebanon conflict sticks out in my mind as being particularly bad for this sort of politicized armchair analysis: see this long timecube-y website or look up anything about the Green Helmet Guy. The links above, on the other hand, are worth considering and offer a great look at how every photograph contains more information than you think it does.