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Witnessing war through a smartphone lens

Updated Monday, 16th March 2020

Wherever there are protests, conflicts and wars, the smartphone camera has become instrumental. Protests captured on camera can spark public debate and help trigger political change – as was the case with the Arab Spring.

One image of a Syrian child refugee, Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on a Greek beach arguably changed the European migration debate in 2015.

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Smartphone cameras have democratised photography. Wherever there are protests, conflicts and wars, the smartphone camera has become instrumental. Protests captured on camera can spark public debate and help trigger political change – as was the case with the Arab Spring. One image of a Syrian child refugee, Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on a Greek beach changed the European migration debate in 2015, at least for a while.

The volume of images of the war in Syria has surpassed that of all previous wars, making it one of the most documented wars in history - much of it recorded on smartphones. Yet most images made by and of victims of war provoke only a temporary surge in empathy.

The digital witnessing of war by people caught up in it has at least helped to rebalance professional images of war and conflict which objectify the subjects. Images captured by Syrian civilians under constant bombardment have an authenticity that opens up new optics. Such images can provide evidence of abuses and afford accountability when war crimes and Human Rights violations are investigated. These images of the everyday realities of war can engage us emotionally in ways that news images do not. But equally, when recordings of war crimes or abuse or torture in the smartphones of Syrian refugees get into the hands of hostile forces, they can mean danger and even death. Similarly, maps and geolocation apps help refugees navigate dangerous journeys to safety, but they also create digital traces that make them locatable to those they are seeking safety from.

Few of us living in the west can imagine how dreadful war is, or how normal it becomes, and how crucial smartphones have become for victims. The film above offers a glimpse of the horrific consequences of war, especially for children and how technologies are now implicated in complicated and contradictory ways, in every stage of the refugee journey. But it also shows the creative uses that Syrian refugee children make of the phone camera, for example, to capture their living conditions in Pikpa camp on the island of Lesvos. They may be victims of war, but they continue actively to imagine new lives through their photography – as we have found in our research with refugees at Pikpa and captured in our book Communities of Solidarity: The Story of Pikpa Camp.

Pikpa camp is exceptional in that it offers a safe and welcoming home to the most vulnerable refugees. You can find out more through this website: https://www.lesvossolidarity.org/en/what-we-do/pikpa-camp. The camp is run entirely by volunteers and donations. But it struggles to survive, despite the best intentions of volunteers. Pikpa contrasts sharply with the notorious Moria camp on Lesvos that residents describe as a ‘living hell”. Lesvos currently (March 2020) hosts 21,729 refugees while some 42,132 refugees are trapped on the Greek islands. Every single number represents a life. And as the Corona Virus takes hold, our attention is once again being diverted from troubling issues on Europe’s external borders. But at the same time, we are all becoming more intensively aware that we cannot escape the ineluctable force of our global connectedness.

FREE photobook: Download a digital version of the book at this link, a full spread PDF version at this link, or a single page PDF version at this link. All the images have no copyright restrictions, only an acknowledgement to the photographer Knut Bry and ’NODE Berlin Oslo’ (i.e. nodeberlin.com  and nodeoslo.com ), the multi-media design studio that created the beautiful design for the book pro-bono. 

Graffiti of eyes on a wall in Lesvos, Greece Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Photo by Dr Marie Gillespie from The Open University Click on the banner to view other Refugee Week materials

 

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