Everyone has a camera they keep in their pocket. Sometimes those pockets are attached to the layers of a Battle Dress Uniform, and the cameras are pointed at the faces of American soldiers in training, Norwegian NATO operatives drilling in the Arctic, or Russian soldiers posing alongside Ukrainian civilians. This is front line photojournalism in line with experiences like the film documentary Restrepo or Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, only with an unfamiliar sense of levity.
Citizen journalism is a mass mediated voice given to the consumer, but that ability to respond and report changing times normally associates itself with phone footage of rioting protesters, collapsing buildings, and famous speeches. In the case of soldier-selfies the mediated content is a little less severe, more in line with the type of human interest stories that crowd otherwise serious newspapers and magazines. The selfie is immediate, intimate, and slightly absurd.
The absurdity of pointing a camera at your face works to discredit whatever journalistic clout a picture might otherwise have. A picture of bearded NATO troops prepping for extreme conditions in the iciest reaches of Norway would be riveting if shot by a professional photojournalist of the New York Times. But when one of those beards is smiling ten inches from the camera we think of it as a joke. He knows what he’s doing here.
He is erasing the barrier between clandestine and civilian. The nature of these drills would otherwise never make it to the public eye without an editor’s strikethrough appropriating certain bits of information over others. It is likely that the drilling NATO soldiers would never make it to the news without the attachment of some dramatic component, like an injured soldier or a horrific accident. Here the caption might as well be wish you were here.
Selfies are the opposite of the candid shot, wherein the subject is unaware of the photographer’s intent. Instead they are socially conscious maneuvers. They get posted to Instagram and Facebook creating an environment wherein the promoter is also the photographer as well as the subject. We like to call this self-promotion.
The results of this self-promotive behavior can be caustic. Private First Class Tariqka Sheffey Instagrammed a picture of herself reclining in the back of her car during an organized flag salute. She mad eyer intentions clear with her caption which stated that a 1700 flag salute was scheduled immediately and that she “DGAF.” Sheffey reminded the anonymous internet collective to “KEEP ALL YOUR ‘THATS SO DISRESPECTFUL/HOWRUDE/ETC.’ COMMENTS TO YOURSELF.” If only it were that easy. Her comments and photography sparked a public outrage that primarily cited her “disrespect” and “rudeness.” Sheffey later released a tearful video in apology for her actions where she spoke into a webcam.
The case of Specialist Terry Harrison was similar to Sheffey’s. Harrison Instagrammed a photograph of herself alongside fellow members of the Wisconsin National Guard posing in front of a casket draped with the American flag. Harrison claimed to “put the FUN in funeral.” Major General Donald Dunbar was “apalled,” by the moral depravity and disrespect communicated by Harrison’s photography. Dunbar did not comment on the poor quality of Harrison’s pun.
These cases are both somewhat reprehensible for their content, but it is valuable to recognize the behaviors they are creating. Superior officers—elders to the soldiers and guardsmen posting these photos—have limited experience with social media compared to their subordinates. There is no preexisting procedure for dealing with dissent over Instagram, and perhaps that factor is responsible for the degree of comfort Sheffey felt posting. It is fair to speculate that Sheffey would be entirely reluctant to give her superior officers the cold shoulder in person, but by making the media work for her she receives a buffer of space, as well as the ability to address the act itself. In the same way that video bloggers address “Youtube” as a subject with their, Hello Youtube openings, Sheffey seemed to address the salute itself in her post. She never said anything that directly addressed a superior officer, instead she created a conversation between her preferences/interests and the salute itself. It is subordination without the rebel attitude, a public servant taking time for personal relaxation. That she chose to associate this behavior with poor taste or an abrasive personality is most incidental.
But there is more to the selfie culture than individualism. The heated political climate of Eastern Europe has provided an exciting landscape for activism via social media. There are some incredible professional photographs of the riots in Kiev on the internet, but these selfies in Crimea (taken via compact digital cameras and cell phones) show a calm civilian body interacting with armed soldiers. Despite the “looming crisis,” writ large and detailed by popular media outlets like CNN and NBC, the people of Crimea have managed to retain an observable modicum of sanity. They pose aside their fellow humans, smiling and nudging shoulder-to-shoulder with battle dressed soldiers that have assault rifles strapped to their back. Humanity seems to resume, at least in these humdrum pictures of notable non-sensationalism. They all look like scrapbook photos, not the type of thing that would make it into a newsreel highlight or the front page of Time magazine. Well they might get Time due to the reflexive popularity they’ve achieved on the internet…
These realist depictions of temperate human behavior could go a long way for deconstructing mean-world syndrome, and they also serve to add texture to information that is otherwise glossed over. This is cultural coverage, the space between headlines that describes regular conduct as-is. Consumer publishing allows content to come to the surface unassisted, the human interest stories that commercial publishers never thought to dig up.