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.

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.

Must see: Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam CurtisBitter Lake is a phenomenal documentary exploring the recent war in Afghanistan through the intertwining histories of the US, Britain, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, especially through their various economic, cultural, and political interests. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You have to see it.

I believe the film is free through the BBC’s iPlayer for the rest of the year if you’re in the UK, but you can probably find parts or all of the film on youtube or other sites if you spend a few minute’s searching.

Descriptions of the film call it “an experimental documentary.” The majority of it is presented without much narration through disjointed remixing of what appears to be found footage, archival BBC footage, excerpts of farcical British films, etc. The sound design, at times, feels straight out of a David Lynch film…other times, as in the end of the trailer above, it’s a Kanye West song.

The movie requires patience, but it’s well worth the effort. I was immediately intrigued and entranced by the trailer (embedded above) and the rest of the film’s 137 minutes follow this style. There are moments of extreme violence–blood spatters the camera lens, in one memorable vignette, and there’s plenty of war footage–but then there’s an interlude of a soldier playing with a bird that lands on his helmet, footage from a Morrison-Knudsen swimming pool party, American soldiers getting manicures, and a lot of dancing. There are off-moments of politicians waiting for a broadcast to start, kids hamming it up for a camera, Afghan dogs fighting, soldiers joking about how many people they’ll kill, a desert trader emerging and disappearing into a sandstorm, and so on. Tarkovsky‘s “Solaris” is a frequent metaphor throughout.

I don’t think any description I can come up with will ever do the movie justice. It’s dreamy and beautiful and poetic, but also forceful and informative and polemic. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’d definitely consider it one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Here are a few reviews: The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Hollywood Reporter.