Worth a watch: Vice News’ Selfie Soldiers – Russia checks into Ukraine

A couple weeks ago I wrote about Bellingcat’s efforts to learn more about wars through social media images, satellite imagery, and other sources. Now, Vice News have just released a 23-minute piece (embedded above) by Simon Ostrovsky tracking down a single Russian soldier through some of his social media posts from Ukraine. This provides evidence that Russian soldiers have been fighting in Ukraine, especially in the critical Battle of Debaltseve in January and February of this year.

Ostrovsky finds geo-tagged images from a man in a Russian soldier’s uniform who posted pictures in Ukraine and untangles his social media posts, eventually leading him to Ulan Ude in central Russia where he meets the man’s wife and eventually speaks to him on the phone, asking about whether or not he was in Ukraine. Ostrovsky’s journalism in this piece is wonderful. He finds the exact locations of countless photos from the soldier’s social media profiles, both in Ukraine and Russia, and recreates the photos himself. He confronts European observers with some of this evidence and challenges them as to why they won’t definitively say that Russia troops are in Ukraine. Watch until the end when Ostrovsky shows his matching photos to the soldier he tracked down.

If you haven’t been watching Simon Ostrovsky’s Russian Roulette series on the conflict in Crimea and Ukraine, by the way, you’re missing out. It is some of the best television journalism I’ve ever seen, and as of this writing there are 108 videos in the series. The pieces get in deep, have a bit of humor, and really personalize both sides of the conflict. Vice’s HBO news show is good, but Russian Roulette is on another level.

“Welcome to the Winogrand Circus” – Gary Winogrand speaks to students at Rice University

In the video (embedded above), Gary Winogrand speaks to Rice University students for nearly two hours in Geoff Winningham‘s class. Winningham still teaches at Rice.

It’s Winningham who introduces Winogrand, saying “Welcome to the Winogrand circus,” and then Winogrand asks for questions from the students. He talks about how he works, his approach to different subjects, and the work of other photographers (Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Bruce Davidson–at 21:44: “[East 100th Street] is sickening…morally, it’s sickening, and photographically it’s just a goddamned bore,” and others). It’s a wide-ranging and very informal talk, but offers a fascinating perspective from Winogrand about his own work and others’.

If you don’t have two hours to spare right now, check out the 16-minute highlight reel (which doesn’t have any footage of Winogrand himself) at the National Gallery of Art.

And searching for this video today, I ran across this question and answer session at MIT with Winogrand in 1974. It starts with a short lecture by Tod Papageorge. There’s a transcript in an old post at 2point8 or on Google Docs. Winogrand’s often a bit enigmatic. Asked about whether he still likes some of his older pictures, he responds, “The one’s I’m interested in, I’m interested in. That’s all I can say.” Some of the audience members aren’t too happy with the vague responses and ask him why he’s answering questions the way he does. It’s a fun listen.

Of course, there’s also this short piece from the 1982 documentary Contemporary Photography in the USA showing Winogrand at work.

I’ve been meaning to share this video of Winogrand since I saw it first early last year. It made the rounds a bit, but it’s worth revisiting. A post on metafilter today reminded me of it.

Bellingcat’s conflict crowdsourcing: analyzing photos and video to learn more about war

Bellingcat analysis of soldier's instagram photo (top) and satellite imagery confirms Russian soldier is in Ukraine
Bellingcat analysis of soldier’s instagram photo (top) and satellite imagery confirms Russian soldier is in Ukraine

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.