Myanmar’s searing smartphone photos flood a watching world

Yangon, March 11

The images ricochet across the planet. as so many do, in this dizzying era of film it, upload it, tell it to the world—scenes from a protest-turned-government crackdown, captured at ground level by smartphone users on the streets of Myanmar.

Images shot across barricades and furtively through windows. From behind bushes and through smudged car windshields. Horizontal video.

Vertical video. Video captured by people running toward chaos and away from it. People shouting. People helping. People demanding.

People dying.

The world is watching violent events unfold in Myanmar for many reasons, but perhaps one above all—because it can.

It is a dynamic completely unlike the uprising that spread through the Southeast Asian nation in the pre-internet, pre-smartphone summer of 1988.

Then, when student-led demonstrations were violently put down by the government, cementing Myanmar’s global notoriety as an isolated, repressive state, it took months, even years, for the outside world to understand the full story of what had happened.

This time around, the imagery is plentiful and unsettling.  Filmed by participants on the ground and uploaded, sometimes immediately, the protests and crackdowns are reaching millions of handheld devices around the planet, also almost immediately.

It’s a vivid example of a technological truism in an age when capturing images has become utterly democratised: If you can glimpse it up close, you’re more likely to pay attention.

“You know the old adage that a picture speaks a thousand words. It makes you feel like, ‘This is happening, this is true,’” says Kareem El Damanhoury, a media scholar at the University of Denver who is writing a book about visuals in times of conflict.

In Myanmar today, he says, “The images are not just complementing what’s happening. Over time they become defining of the conflict itself.”    

As of Wednesday, more than 60 people were dead from the government crackdown on mass protests in Myanmar after a coup early last month. Nearly 2,000 are estimated to be imprisoned, and media outlets are being targeted. Among those held: Thein Zaw, an Associated Press journalist taken into custody in a chokehold by authorities while doing his job 10 days ago — an arrest also captured on video and widely shared.

“The video is extremely disturbing,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said last week of footage chronicling attacks on journalists—footage captured in some cases by non-professional, non-media sources.

The ability of on-the-ground imagery from amateurs to define a conflict, through still photos and particularly video, has been accelerating for more than a decade.

Many media scholars cite the 2009 election protests in Iran and the chronicling of government violence there, particularly the shooting death of a young musician named Neda Agha-Soltan, as an inflection point.

That came four years after the dawn of YouTube and two years after Apple introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a trio of watershed moments: Amateur video became easily shareable, smartphones with decent-quality video and instant uploads became affordable, and many humans suddenly always had cameras in their pockets.

The decade that followed brought many opportunities for democratised, phone-shot imagery — from the 2011 Arab Spring to the Hong Kong protests of 2014 and the increasing government crackdown against them in ensuing years.

Last year in the United States, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was captured on nearly nine minutes of anguished video—only the latest imagery of police violence against Black Americans to command worldwide attention.

Floyd’s death set off a summer of anti-racism protests and law-enforcement responses, both of which sometimes turned violent—and were chronicled by millions of minutes of shared on-the-ground video, which became central to Americans’ understanding of the events.

Same story with amateur video shot by participants in the siege of the US Capitol in January, which has been used to understand the events, to propagandise them and to prosecute suspected insurrectionists.

In the case of Myanmar, the sheer amount and quality of the amateur video is particularly striking when contrasted with “8.8.88”—the August 1988 pro-democracy uprising against dictator Ne Win that produced a military coup the following month in the nation then known as Burma.

Imagery from those days was relatively scant, and communications from within the country—visual and otherwise—were vigorously muzzled. Any iconic images came from, or were amplified by, established news outlets.

There was no internet yet, no shared video or social platforms to host it. And then much of the world forgot about Myanmar for nearly a generation.

It’s different this time. Though YouTube has taken down some Myanmar military channels for violating its terms of service, citizen video is plentiful. And representatives of governmental bodies from the United States to the United Nations have cited the video as a muscular reminder of the power of the image to impact perception and, possibly, policy.

“I was struck by the vibrancy of the images I have seen—the color, the kinetic energy in them, which seemed pretty distinctive,” says Mitchell Stephens, a New York University professor and author of “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word.” — AP 


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