Félix Philippoteaux. Alphonse Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848.

Iconography of Maidan Revolution

Alise Tifentale

What is the visual grammar of a revolution as represented in social media? What are the common subjects, and what the patterns of these subjects over time and space?

In order to understand the common themes of Maidan images, I have selected 818 images from our dataset with the most common Maidan tags. I then manually labeled these images, identifying 29 content categories. (Note that an image can fall into more than once category - for example, the same image may represent crowds and also contain an Ukrainian flag).

When I examined the content of each image individually, I first noticed several recurring content-related patterns. Several categories of subject matter reappear constantly, such as crowds, flags, barricades, fire, smoke, and debris in the streets, slogans and graffiti, flowers and candles, and – to a lesser degree – weapons. Furthermore, some of these tropes are repeated more often than others. The largest categories include representation of a crowd, flags, and fire and smoke in the streets.

Subject categories in images with Maidan tag(s), sorted by frequency:

This iconography signifies an urban revolution in today’s online image sharing platform as clearly as it did in drawings, prints, and paintings from the French Revolution of 1789 or in early photographic documentation of the European Revolutions of 1848. Some of the major keywords and parts of the visual grammar of a representation of an urban public uprising, protest movement, or revolution does not seem to change across diverse geographic locations and even different time periods.

Fire or smoke during the day category. Kyiv, 2014.

Fire or smoke during the night category. Kyiv, 2014.

Weapons category. Kyiv, 2014.

Barricades category. Kyiv, 2014.

For a comparison, see these photographs of 1848 Revolution in Paris:

Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg. Barricades of the Paris Commune Near Hôtel de Ville and the Rue de Rivoli. April 1871, Paris

Thibault. Barricades on Rue Saint-Maur, June 25, 1848. Paris, 1848.

Some images fall into an un-categorizable category of idiosyncratic miscellany. Even though outside the most popular categories of subject matter, these images seem to be related to Maidan events. They appear in our dataset because they are tagged with one or more Maidan tags and posted from the area around the Independence Square. Regardless of the fact that formally these photographs do not follow the dominant pattern of revolutionary imagery, we can assume that these images have been significant markers of Maidan experience to certain individuals.

This observation partly explains how studying Instagram images differs from, let’s say, studying images distributed by a news agency or published in an online or offline news outlet. Instead of focusing on an edited set of “iconic” images, all images in our dataset appear as equally significant. Thus the documentation of everyday activities can be easily conflated with glimpses of the extraordinary and the exceptional, without any hierarchy, which would prioritize one over the other.

Miscellaneous subjects related to Maidan category. Kyiv, 2014.

By looking closely at images in these categories, we can observe some particularities of the visual vocabulary chosen by the participants and close observers of the events. Unlike the professionally trained photojournalists who work in a market-driven economy and aim at capturing the “decisive moments” that are shocking or at least able to get the photo editor’s attention, the motivations of the numerous participants to take and share photographs are diverse and not so transparent. Besides, photojournalists are allegedly neutral observers, whereas the participants are actively involved. Claiming the insider’s perspective, these images express certain values and attitudes by the choice of a particular type of subject matter.

To describe one of the dominant attitudes, we can use an umbrella term “non-violent.” Even though violent events were taking place, the very acts of violence and depiction of its victims are limited to a very small number of Instagrammed images. Instead, in the majority of images violence is implied, but not directly present. Numerous photographs show the barricades - the almost universal symbol of street fighting. Yet they don't show the the actual fighting, instead presenting the barricades as a background for preparation, waiting, and communication. Not exactly the “decisive moment” from a photojournalist’s perspective, but obviously important enough for the participants to capture and share.

In this context, Instagram image set can be viewed as a collective photo-story. The user-generated tags and metadata (such as time tags and locations) allow us to recreate the flow of visual information chronologically and map this flow onto geographically defined city areas. One could propose that this dataset is an online photobook that continues the tradition of narrative and awareness-raising social photography established by examples such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (James Agee and Walker Evans, 1941) and The Americans (Robert Frank, 1958).

Unlike these photobooks, however, the image flow in our dataset reflects a multiplicity of voices, multiplicity of perspectives, which can be diverse, contradictory, and idiosyncratic, thus rendering a single narrative totally imaginary and hypothetical. Sharing photos on Instagram is all about “now,” about affirming the present and the presence. There is no pre-existing structure to the flow of images originating as a collectively authored Ulysses - instead we see a stream of uploads from multiple individual sources. To complicate matters further, this stream contains not only original documentary snapshots but also all other kinds of hybrid images such as smartphone screenshots, images from computer and TV screens, altered and manipulated images, reposted images from other user’s accounts and from mass media.

Slogans, inscriptions, posters, graffiti category. Kyiv, 2014.

Slogans and inscriptions over photographs category. Kyiv, 2014.

Screenshots - digital and print media category. Kyiv, 2014.

Non-photographic images category. Kyiv, 2014.

None of the Instagram users have experienced this dataset as a single and unbroken storyline – the narrative structure is not visible on the surface, it emerges and can be analyzed post-factum, when we download, select and visualize images according to specific criteria. From such dataset we cannot learn what happened and why, but we can learn how the participants of a specific event are using digital image-making and online image-sharing tools to construct a particular visual language of Instagrammed revolution. This language is partly rooted in the history of photography and partly unlike all its historical precedents. Its links to history of photography become visible when we inspect individual photographs - choice of subject matter, specific ways of representation, and composition often point to similarities to earlier examples of photojournalism, citizen journalism and amateur photography. The whole idea of online image-sharing platforms, however, radically differs from all earlier channels for sharing and distribution of photographs. Such platforms, unthinkable before the availability of smartphone cameras and internet access, generate new genres of photography (such as the selfie) as well as encourage circulation of hybrid images (including smartphone screen captures, or slogans overlaid over photographic background).

Flags displayed prominently category. Kyiv, 2014.

Jean-Pierre Rey. Girl waving flag in crowd during general strike, Paris, May 1968.

Gilles Caron. Protest in Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, May 6, 1968.