After Bucha: Reflecting on Images and Establishing the Narratives of War – by Milana Nikolko
Two weeks have passed since the town of Bucha, a comfortable and cozy suburb of Kiev, where large pine trees were integrated into the modern cityscape, was liberated by Ukrainian forces. I know Bucha quite well; on many occasions I visited a warm and welcoming house of my friends, where we spent countless nights sharing the stories of our camping trips and dreaming about the future. I always thought of Bucha as a place of two dimensions. One closely follows the rhythm of a megapolis (Bucha is connected by railway to Kyiv’s train station and a large part of its population commutes daily to the Ukrainian capital). The second is a place for the quiet country life. At least that is how I remembered Bucha until recently.
Images of this war
Today, every mention of Bucha brings to life different pictures: images of destruction, chaos, devastation and death. The photographs of bodies on the streets, fragments of corpses, and motionless images of civilian figures lying on the ground dominated our imagination. The first shock, an immediate reaction to the seeing images of so many civilians killed on the streets of this small town[i], provoked a predictable physical reaction— many felt sick. It is a transformative experience not just for survivors, but for spectators of the war as well. The physicality of “war images” creates a belief, that everyone, who sees this evidence of death, will share the same feelings: grief, compassion and overwhelming sadness for the people portrayed in these images. The simplicity of the images—capturing a dead person beside a bike, the perfectly manicured hand of a killed woman, and many, many other visual pieces of evidence of death and suffering— must erase any doubt about what this war is about and who is right and is wrong. Since images of Bucha’s ruins, the perpetrators and victims of this war will be cemented in their permanent roles.
The day after the majority of the world media shared the visual evidence of Bucha’s killings of civilians, the counter-narrative spread quickly via social networks. This narrative included stories of falsifications of the civilian deaths in Bucha, and rumours about bringing corpses from morgues to mimic killings, days after Russian troops had withdrawn from the scene. These stories didn’t last long. A journalistic investigation (New York Times[ii]) showed satellite images of bodies lying on the streets of Bucha when Russian troops were still in control of the town, thereby disproving the counter-narrative. The most striking fact about this brief spread of Russian propaganda was how very easy it is to twist stories behind images, but the fact that there is an audience for such stories, believers in this alternative reality. The idea of the universal moral unity, a collective “We”, where everyone stands in support of the suffering of the Ukrainian people, proved to be an illusion, again. The narratives for the images of war are the part of the war itself.
Narratives of this war
This war has many distinctive features. Some of them lie in the field of visualization and media transcription of events. As time passes, individual emotional connections to the images of war become less strong, but war images transform themselves into icons, symbols and crucial markers of war narratives. These icons could be characterized as axiomatic units of tales of war. The interpretations of the war continue and we are now learning a new vocabulary of atrocities, war crimes and genocide[iii], where they have given unique names: “Bucha”, “the Bucha massacre.” Nowadays, military conflicts are guaranteed wide and uninterrupted media attention and the iconography of suffering, devastation and death impact the war in many different dimensions.
The first feature, which is important for our analysis, is that this war has also actively engaged new mediums, new technology to deliver images. Livestreaming, drone recordings, volunteer’s notes transmitted and multiplied via social networks, satellite images, recordings of cellphone conversations of military personnel: these streams of images are not easy to process immediately, but they serve an important role in putting the image of the war puzzle together. The engagement of a broad spectrum of technologies creates a new dynamic visual and audio stream of narratives of crimes, perpetrators and victims.
The second feature involves the changing role of images in modern military conflict. Let me mention a few:
- The images of war alarm the public more than any of other media— visual content is effective in bringing global attention to the suffering of civilians. The picture of death globalized, and delivered to every screen, is aimed to change the behaviour of political and military actors to prevent this from happening in the future[iv].
- Visual evidence serves to mobilize the global and national public for further actions to stop the war.
- Images are important documents of the war. Hundreds of Ukrainian prosecutors and many representatives of the International Criminal Court are investigating the multiple crime sites in Bucha, which were captured on photos. Images of crime are helping to advocate for reparation (often symbolic), retribution, and bringing justice[v] to the victims.
- Images are powerful vehicles for political changes. The Bucha images have influenced the political decisions of many countries in the world, Canada among them, witnessed by the recent decision to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons.[vi] Collective political decisions and sanctions policies are affected[vii] and peace negotiations redirected.
This war continues and we must brace ourselves for more devastating images. Looking ahead, I don’t know what I fear the most, to see the devastating images of people’s suffering and death in Mariupol, or worse, to never see them. There is a significant chance that after the occupation of Mariupol by Russian troops, the shreds of evidence of the horror of war will be erased.
[i] Anastasiia Lapatina. Nearly 2 weeks after liberation, search for dead bodies continues in Bucha // The Kyiv independent, https://kyivindependent.com/national/nearly-2-weeks-after-liberation-search-for-dead-bodies-continues-in-bucha/
[ii] “Satellite images show bodies lay in Bucha for weeks, despite Russian claims.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/04/world/europe/bucha-ukraine-bodies.html
[iii] Genocide. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml
[iv] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
[v] Hearty, Kevin. “Problematising Symbolic Reparation: ‘Complex Political Victims’, ‘Dead Body Politics’ and the Right to Remember.” Social & legal studies 29, no. 3 (2020): 334–354.
[vi] Canada will send heavy weapons to Ukraine, Trudeau says. https://globalnews.ca/news/8770091/canada-heavy-weapons-aid-ukraine-russia-war/
[vii] “Killings in Ukrainian city of Bucha are ‘clearly war crimes,’ says Joly”, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/joly-bucha-war-crimes-1.6407744
~ Milana Nikolko
Adjunct Research Professor, Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University (firstname.lastname@example.org)