Media Witnessing and Personal Memories: The Case of Soldiers’ Non-professional Videos

Although the visual documentation of violence at the frontlines has existed since World War II with the photographs took by the Nazis in the 20st Century, the circulation of these records was restricted to the military and curated by governmental institutions and the mainstream media as part of a propaganda strategy. In the 21st Century the production and distribution of audiovisual records of war is acquiring a new dimension as soldiers are using new media tools and networks to document and share their personal experiences at the frontlines with networked publics around the world.

As communication researchers have pointed out, soldier’s new media practices are blurring the boundaries between narrating armed conflicts and taking active part in them (Auden-Papadopoulos; Mortensen). As a result, a new audiovisual genre has emerged in the networked media environment: the soldiers’ non-professional videos of war. By creating audiovisual records of combats from the fighters’ point of view, U.S soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, rebels in Syria, and soldiers in Colombia, to name just a few, are dynamically transforming the portrayal of warfare and the “media witnessing” of violence.

Soldiers’ non-professional war videos have acquired more value in the global networked communication environment due to their unique capacity to “bear witness” real world events from a closer, subjective, and immediate perspective. These videos reveal aspects of war that have been taboo for the military and the media industries, and provide audiovisual evidence of extremely violent and gruesome first-hand experiences that otherwise would be hidden from public visibility  (Anden-Papadopoulos).

The evidential and affective quality of non-professional videos of war is one of the reasons why these personal memories have become meaningful to networked publics and have been used to shape collective memories. As Kari Anden-Papadopoulos and Mervi Panti have pointed out, “journalists -as well as audiences- value amateur visuals for their perceived immediacy, authenticity and proximity (…) they constitute first-hand recordings by individuals who witnessed or experienced an event as it was actually happening.”(12)

Online amateur videos mediate eye witnessing because they are perceived both by creators and viewers as first-hand testimonies and realistic depictions of unfolding events. However, because soldiers’ “media-witnessing” of war and its public circulation bypasses military, governmental, and mainstream media controls, it generates ethical challenges for digital war reporting. (Alper; Anden-Papadopoulos and Panti) The high emotional value of these videos sometimes obscures issues of truthfulness, accuracy, and fairness in favor of a personal point of view, untamed graphic content, and proximity to the violent action. Hence, some of these memories can disrupt official narratives of war and shock publics with their audiovisual records (e.g. USA soldiers photographs of Abu Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse).

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