Letters from Ukraine: 12/06/22 – Looking Glass

George Gittoes reflects on the role of smartphone photography and digital image circulation in the conflict in Ukraine, both for those far afield and civilians caught in its midst.

Work in progress on "Through the Looking Glass," the third panel in Gittoes's triptych "Victory," 186 x 300 cm

I  was about twelve years old and out on a Sunday  picnic in the Royal National Park with my parents and grandparents. Nana set out the picnic next to a river because she knew I would be entertained by catching yabbies. I would put a piece of rotten meat on a string and coax them in to a shrimp net, dragging them slowly along with the meat by their two big front claws. I was doing this when I heard a splash. Some bushwalker had left a camera on the branch of a tree, possibly while they went for a swim, and had forgotten it. I dived in after it and ran excitedly over to show everyone. It was a Zeiss.

Dad took it to a camera shop and was assured they had repaired the water damage and it was OK for me to use. This was my first camera. It kept breaking down due to the water, but dad kept getting it fixed and I kept using it.

I would take slides and the whole family and friends would be treated to a regular slide show, usually documenting our trips to places like Canberra. I even took abstract art photos that no one understood the purpose of but seemed to enjoy – things like the textures on the bark of trees. I would post my exposed films off to Kodak and they would return in our letter box in a yellow plastic container.

I took this camera with me to the US in 1968 but it broke down, almost immediately. One of my big regrets was that I was too tight-fisted to replace it. That important period of my life meeting Andy Warhol, dinners with Clement Greenberg and all the times I spent with Joe Delaney drawing at the Art Students League and sketching portraits in Washington Square Park would have been captured on film.

When I returned to Australia in 1969 my dad bought me a new Asahi Pentax camera with a “through the lens viewfinder” SLR – later adding an enlarger which enabled me to set up a dark room. A professional photographer, Ian Dodd, lived around the corner. Ian showed me the basics a of printing and developing. I would wander the streets of Sydney and especially Kings Cross and take shots of people being themselves. No one I knew thought photography was an art form like painting and drawing. It was a revelation meeting Greg Weight through Martin Sharp, in the early days, before the Yellow House became the Yellow House.

I remember sharing a thick wad of my black-and-white photos with Greg and feeling I had found a companion artist photographer who really “got it.”

So many wars later and thousands of photos behind me I am in Ukraine. But photography is not what it was.

Everyone here is a photographer with a camera in their phone capable of capturing incredibly high-quality images and immediately sending them to friends or posting on social media. It is rare that I photograph anything that has not already been captured on someone’s phone. Many of these images and videos shot by “amateurs” are used by world news in place of the work of professional freelance photojournalists and videographers. Inaccessible situations, like inside the siege of the steel works at Mariupol, have reached the world via phones.

When I set up my canvas to paint in war ravaged places, like Borodyanka and Bucha, locals passing by stop to take photos with their phones and invariably ask if they can pose with me for  selfies. I have to expect to be interrupted, constantly.  When cops and army vehicles pull up it is not to ask me what I am doing or to see my passport and press credentials, it is to get selfies and shoot social media videos. 

In the debris of what was once the beautiful garden of a classy restaurant in Borodyanka, there is a classical sculpture of a Greek goddess standing on a column. She is the only item that is not damaged or scarred by a bullets or shrapnel. She holds a shallow cup in her left hand and is looking into it.  The sculptor was not aware that he had captured the exact way people of this century stand transfixed staring into the screens of their mobile phones. 

In my drawing I replicated her viewing the destroyed buildings and cars which surround her  as if she is looking into a phone and not a cup. This became my metaphone for the way the world has viewed the news of this war on their phones. But it is not just those outside of Ukraine; everyone here has been glued to their phones for news, as well. When a bomb exploded near to where we were staying in Odessa, the neighbours all came outside holding their phones. While we all heard the explosion and could smell and see the fires it had ignited, there were people closer, filming it on their phones and live streaming. And we could check the reports of  early arriving news crews. 

I replicated the statue three times for my painting and am calling it Through the Looking Glass. This is a looking glass war made more real and immediate and frightening on the small handheld screens becoming inseparable for those here, from the panorama of destruction that surrounds us.

I do not use a phone camera and continue to lug my heavy SLR digital cameras wherever I go. Often when I see what others have shot on their phones, I recognise their images as better than what I have captured with all my years of experience.

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