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Ivan Sigal: Light Weapons

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The Corcoran’s summer exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath details the relationship between this important subject and the primary recording medium used to preserve its visual history. For the most part, photographic imagery of war has been generated by professional journalists, military cameramen, and soldiers themselves. During the past several years, however, transitions in technology and media have generated a new form of coverage. Increasingly, people directly affected by conflict have chosen to act as journalists themselves—recording and disseminating their own observations and experiences as reportage.

The rise of the citizen as journalist has come about for many reasons. Of central importance, the development of inexpensive technological systems and tools (i.e. the Internet, lightweight cameras, mobile phone networks, and large capacity storage for data) has facilitated personal production and distribution of digital media, allowing anyone to get news out to a potentially large audience. Additionally, concerned citizens have leapt into the gap left by the waning attention of traditional media outlets. Newspaper and network staff layoffs, a more fragmented audience, and corporate imperatives have led to constricted and sanitized coverage of wars and other uncomfortable subjects.

Citizen journalism is thus the latest force changing how we experience and understand war through the eyes of others. Recently, the Corcoran invited photographer Ivan Sigal to select examples of present-day participatory video to appear on the gallery walls outside WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY. Sigal, whose own photography was seen last year in the Corcoran exhibition and book White Road, is Executive Director of the citizen media website Global Voices. Below, he explains his process.


Over 500,000 videos have been uploaded to the Internet from Syria during the past two years. Many document the course of protest and conflict, while others promote the views and perspectives of combatants, protesters, peace movements, and ordinary citizens who are witness to events. Despite this profusion of eyewitness perspective, the Syrian conflict has been poorly covered by media outlets worldwide. In part, this is because narrative descriptions of the war do not easily fit into a framework of good and evil, right and wrong. It is also because many videos that emerge are created with an absence of context, editing, or explanation.

While many of the uploaded videos are created by individuals, collectives and organizations have been active in curating, vetting, subtitling and promoting the content. Several groups function as virtual news agencies, both investigating and guaranteeing the sourcing of content, and syndicating the videos to mass media outlets and through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and especially YouTube, as well as livestream sites such as Bambuser and UStream. Emergent Syrian organizations distributing citizen video include the ANA New Media Channel and Shaam News Network. Syria Deeply tracks and organizes coverage of Syria, and also produces

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original analysis. Syria Untold documents the under-reported peace movement, which has continued despite the escalating war. Global Voices has ongoing special coverage of Syrian citizen media. The New York Times produces an ongoing compilation of material called Watching Syria’s War.

Following are two compilations of recent citizen video from Syria, produced in an effort to isolate and highlight several aspects of this flood of imagery. These videos are on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, running concurrently with the exhibition War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and in Washington through September 29, 2013. They were produced in collaboration with Global Voices and Witness.

The first video, Light Weapons, reveals details of life during wartime: the uneven flight of a helicopter, a car creeping through the stillness of night, the swaying of a crowd, and people hurrying through the street. These scenes not only show the protests, police sweeps, shelling, and daily terror that have come to define daily existence for so many in Syria, they also reveal the incidental, the atmospheric: the sensations of war as well as the facts.



The second video, The Law of the Powerful Over the Weak, excerpts testimonials and interviews. These clips represent the many ways that individuals seek to understand their experiences. Here we find narration, retelling, interpretation, interrogation. A child recounts the destruction of his neighborhood; a nervous, laughing man describes how a sniper terrifies a community; a man mourns the death of his brother, a photographer. These accounts allow us to approach the war through the perspective of individual stories rather than the abstract language of geopolitics and national interest.

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They remind us that this war is foremost a vast tragedy for hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, and that the few stories represented here are emblematic of countless others.




Photo Credits:

  • Right: Still image from Law of the Powerful Over the Weak (2013), Ivan Sigal, editor.
  • Left: Still image from Light Weapons (2013), Ivan Sigal, editor.