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.

Worth a look: Послание-70 – Portraits and Interviews with Russian World War II Veterans

Through a few Russian photographer friends on facebook, I ran across the fascinating project Послание-70 last week. The name translates to “Message-70” and it’s a series of portraits and short interviews with Russian veterans of World War Two (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War). For the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, hard fought on the Eastern Front in Russia, a group of Russian photographers (mostly freelancer photojournalists) came together under the name Vasily Terkin, the hero of Alexander Tvardovsky‘s great war epic, to photograph surviving veterans of the war. When you navigate through the site, the red text next to the portraits (or gray in the gallery above) are veterans’ responses when asked to give advice to younger generations. The larger text, below each portrait, comprises some of the veterans’ recollections from the war. More than 50 photographers from 30 cities across Russia participated in the project

The website is only in Russian for now, but Google Translate does a decent job with getting the general idea across. You will need to copy and paste excerpts, though; it doesn’t seem to work when you try to translate the whole page. I’ve translated the quotes in the above gallery, so you can read the veterans’ advice to youth in the captions.

I was intrigued by the project, so I reached out to ask some of the photographers involved how this all came about. Anton Karliner, a young photojournalist based in Novosibirsk, Russia, involved in the project, answered a few questions. The interview was conducted over email and facebook in English, and I’ve made a few minor corrections to grammar in Karliner’s responses. Our conversation is below.

M. Scott Brauer: First, a bit about the project. How many photographers were involved? How were the chosen? How did you decide on the style of presentation (both photography and writing)? How did you keep it consistent across all of the photographers?

Anton Karliner:First of all, I want to highlight the fact that I’m not a “leader” or “curator” of the project. Im just one of the authors. We all have the same rights, it’s truly a collective work and this is pretty much the idea. Speaking about how it actually worked, firstly we had some kind of a “core” – a group of young photographers mostly involved in Misha Domozhilov‘s course in documentary photography at Fotodepartment.Institute, with Misha himself as well. We discussed the idea for some time and then, as it was clear, we invited reliable photographers from all possible regions of Russia. Everyone could invite. So, at the end it was more than 50 photographers from more than 30 cities (which is unique for a group photography project, I would say!). At the first phase we continued to discuss the style we want to keep, we did some sample shoots, it was a lot of discussion and then, as things were set, we just had to introduce them to newcomers. As you can see, our visual language is not very complicated, so it wasn’t a big problem.

I’ve never seen a coalition of photographers publish a project under a single name. Sometimes agencies and collectives work together, but the way this was done turns the photographers into a single author. Why?

The idea of doing some kind of “anonymous” group project came from the very beginning. And the reason is very simple – we want to give a voice to veterans, not to express our personality in pictures. When you sign the photographer’s name near to the picture, it starts to influence the viewer. So we prefer to stay under the name of the book’s hero. It may sound vain – but this is maybe a true documentary photography. We don’t want to interpret and express ourselves, we only document things and then present them to the viewers like this.

I’m a student of Russian literature, but don’t know much about the poem “Vasily Terkin.” (here’s an excerpt with English translation. The name may also be written as Vasily Terkin or a similar variation.) Is that where the name comes from? Was he a real person? Could you talk about why that name was chosen to represent the authors of this work?

Vasily Terkin is the name of the hero of the Alexander Tvardovsky (famous Soviet poet and writer) poem. Vasily Terkin wasn’t a real man, it’s an image of the Soviet soldier during WW II. Tvardovsky constructed his hero from the soldier’s types he met in the battlefields. Tvardovsky worked as a journalist during the war, and the “Vasily Terkin” poem chapters were printed weekly in military newspapers and soldiers could read it. The poem was extremely popular, also because there wasn’t a lot of ideology inside, Stalin wasn’t mentioned at all, for example. That’s how Vasily Terkin’s image – a simple, but wise and honest man, who can survive during the hardships of war time and also express his thoughts in humorous and metaphorical way became very popular in USSR. This is why we’ve chosen his name.

Screenshot of Poslanie-70.ru
Screenshot of Poslanie-70.ru

Poslanie-70 seems like a journalistic project, so it strikes me as a little strange that journalists would insert themselves into the story of war by naming themselves after a representation of heroism in the war. Is this a work of journalism or something else? How should viewers consider the work if it is presented under the name of a participant in the war (or at least a representation of the war)?

I understand your question. And yes, our project is a documentary project. But I think that it’s in a bit of a different field. We don’t try to investigate the sides of this war, who was right and who wasn’t (speaking of which, we believe that Nazism is the most terrible thing ever happened). We try to preserve the memories of those who defeated the evil. So, I don’t think that this pseudonym makes us less objective here.

In the US, where I’m from, veterans have special status in society. People are very grateful and respectful of what soldiers did for their country. Is that the same in Russia? Do ordinary Russians respect and revere WW2 veterans in a similar way?

For sure, WWII veterans (or Great Patriotic War veterans, as we call it) have a lot of respect in Russia. There are a lot of veteran organizations which do their best to make veterans’ life better. There are also many volunteers who help veterans in very different ways. Sometimes the state fails to make everything possible for them, but simple citizens do. The sad thing is that there are very few veterans left. Even some of the heroes of our project passed away already.

Were most of these veterans featured in the project drafted into the military, or did they volunteer? Does that change how they think about their military service?

Most of veterans who we took pictures of volunteered in some way. Most of them were younger than 18 years old when the war began. But there were also those who were already doing their military service before the war began [Note from MSB: Russia has had compulsory military service of some sort since imperial times). I didn’t have an impression that it changed their attitude. Many of them told us that they felt duty to protect their homeland.

I’ve seen similar projects on American veterans that pair contemporary portraits of the veterans with photos of them at the time of their service. A project like this is necessarily about their deeds in history, but you don’t show pictures of them then. Did you ask the veterans how they would prefer to be represented? That is, in a modern portrait of how they survived life and war, or if they’d prefer a portrait from their time in ww2?

We didn’t ask them for their war portraits, but that could be an interesting addition, I think. But in our project we have another goal – we want to show them now. Their wrinkles, scars and eyes tell a lot about their history as well.

This project as you have presented it is very much about the Soviet Union. You’ve taken the name of a Soviet hero, you’re exploring a very significant part of Soviet history, the uniforms are Soviet uniforms. But the Soviet history is a complicated one with both great and terrible things done under Soviet banners. I don’t know who all of the photographers involved are, but I’m sure many of them don’t even remember Soviet times. What is it like to look back and celebrate this history when current politics are so removed from the politics of that time? I guess, looking at American history, for instance, that many or most people would think (or hope) that current American politics is very closely allied with the American politics driving our participation in the war, but that might not be the case with Russians.

I see your point. But I have to say that the importance of WW2 for Russia isn’t connected with Soviet ideology only. I mean, there are some people who are very nostalgic about Stalinism, but most of the veterans say that they didn’t fight for Stalin (or for Stalin only, at least); they fought to protect their homeland and their beloved ones. The interesting thing about this period is that war united all people, independent of their political views, nationality, etc. That’s why these 4 years stay apart from the Soviet history (which, I can agree, is very double-sided). So, it’s not about Soviet ideology, I would say. And you can see that many of the veterans even don’t wear their old uniforms at the photos.

What did the veterans think about putting on their old uniforms?

Well, some of them are very proud to wear their uniforms and others don’t want to put on their medals – they say that they remind them of the terrible events of war. So, it depends.

The website for the project is wonderful. What other plans do you have for presenting the work? Book? Exhibitions?

Thanks! We plan to redesign the website, actually, we took much more portraits (about 230) and we want to add them. We also plan to make a book, for sure. Now we’re looking for possibilities. We also want to translate the site into English, hope it will happen soon. And we continue to shoot! We don’t want to stop now, there’s a lot of work to be done.


Thanks to Anton Karliner for talking about the project. Spend some time with the Послание-70, if only to look at the portraits. You should also check out Fotodepartment.ru to get a feel for current Russian photography.

More states move to outlaw photographing police activity; Walter Scott shooting video illustrates the necessity

Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC
Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC

News unfolded this week about the police shooting of the unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. It’s another in a long line of fatal shootings by police, many unprovoked and often with underlying race issues. In March of this year, in fact, American police killed more people (111) than the UK police have killed in total since 1900 (52).

In Walter Scott’s murder, video taken by a bystander has played an incredibly important role. In fact, look at the sort of statements about the killing made before the video was released. Initially the police department defended the actions of police officer Michael Slager, saying he followed all procedures. The graphic video, available at the New York Times, contradicts the initial narrative of the incident and apparently shows the police officer planting a taser near Scott’s body. After the video, officer Slager was arrested and charged with murder. And while video evidence of Eric Garner’s killing by police was not enough for a grand jury indictment (the whole grand jury system has issues, especially when dealing with accused police officers), it’s clear that the right to film and photograph police activity plays an important role in American democracy.

There has been widespread call for police to wear body cameras at all times, though many rightly suggest that this will be most effective only if the cameras and video are controlled and archived by an independent third party. The US Department of Justice has a huge document titled Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. The ACLU is also worried about violations of individuals’ privacy when police record all activity all the time, as well. Nevertheless, it’s been shown that police body cameras have substantial positive effects on policing, including less violence and fewer citizen complaints.

Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.” Montana Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings)

All of this should illustrate why it is so troubling that states around the country continue attempts to restrict people’s right to record police activity with video or still photography. We’ve covered the issue often over the past few years. This year, both Montana (where I’m from) and Texas legislators have proposed laws restricting the filming of police. The proposed (now dropped, see update below) Texas law HB 2918 would only allow registered “news media” to record police, and only from at least 25 feet away. The Montana law, proposed bill HB633, would also only allow media to film police and require them to get a $100 permit from the police department to be filmed. Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings) introduced the bill and said that, “Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.”

The tide may be turning on this issue, though. Both Colorado and California legislators recently introduced bills to protect those who film police. In Colorado, HB 15-1290, creates punishments for officers found to have interfered with people lawfully recording their activity. The proposed California bill, SB 411, clarifies state law by stating that merely recording a police officer conducting official duty should not automatically be considered interference with a police officer. A Baltimore police department recently paid $250,000 for seizing and deleting people’s cell phone videos. And a Seattle police officer was recently fired after threatening to arrest a newspaper editor for filming him.

The only person involved in the video of Eric Garner’s death to be indicted was the man who recorded the video of the incident. Though his indictment was not related to the filming, he fears that guards will poison his food at Rikers Prison, just as is alleged by 19 other inmates there. The man who filmed the killing of Walter Scott told the Washington Post that he kept the footage secret for days, fearing for his life, but ultimately decided to let the video out because of how different it was from how police described the incident.

As always, know your rights when filming or photographing police. And even if you believe you’re in the right, if the situation turns dangerous and a police officer threatens you, it’s best not to escalate the situation with a discussion of your rights. Nevertheless, here are some good guides regarding photography and the police in the US: 7 Rules for Recording the Police and the ACLU’s various links regarding police and photography.

UPDATE (13 April 2015): The Texas bill to limit recording of police activity has been dropped. The sponsoring politician cited large public outcry as a reason for withdrawing the bill.