Lessons from the Digital War Archive: Reflections on Real-Time History

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Real-time History is the title of Foundland Collective’s research project pertaining to Syrian conflict video documentation initiated in 2018. Since October 2023, however, the project title has taken on renewed urgency. Watching the shocking situation in Gaza and Occupied Palestinian Territories unfold over the last seven months, and witnessing in disbelief as a genocide is broadcast so vividly and accessibly for international, real-time viewing on a multitude of platforms, the exposure to violence and brutality is overwhelming. Now more than ever, and in the face of often biased and inadequate official reporting, the documentation of atrocities, and highlighting and preservation of eyewitness testimonies and accounts are critical—if not contributing to justice now, then at a later date.

The first iteration of Real-Time History (2018) was a twenty-two-minute-long video installation documenting conflicting narratives issued by citizen journalist1 video reports of an alleged chemical weapon attack that took place in Douma, Syria on April 7, 2018. The key found videos are still stored on the Syrian Archive website, a Syrian-led and -initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to collecting citizen journalist content related to human rights abuses in Syria. Directly after the incident, speculation from all sides emerged, casting the established Western media narrative and certainty of the chemical attack in doubt, particularly within Russian media.

Foundland Collective’s initial response was to develop a method for visual analysis of selected videos taking the form of conversations between the collective’s members—Lauren Alexander (LA) and Ghalia Elsrakbi (GE)—as we independently watched, described, deciphered, interpreted, and translated the found video footage. Our discussion is shown as scrolling text within the video and is conversational and subjective. This method of framing and fragmenting video content is explicitly presented as an artistic intervention that draws attention to isolated details, allowing for a moment of pause, reflection, and concentrated reading and looking at new fragments, such that it is possible to look closely and zoom in on specific details. The main takeaway for the audience was to learn that identical fragments of video material can be, and are, narrated in such a way that they tell conflicting truths. Our goal was to promote ways of looking that function in contrast to the mega highspeed narratives promulgated by mainstream news media.

Foundland Collective, Real-time History (excerpt), 2018. Video, 2 minutes 46 seconds.

As a continuation of the Real-Time History trajectory, and in collaboration with researcher and filmmaker Hanna Rullmann, the project developed further into a series of conversations that look behind the scenes to explore perspectives of video makers, citizen journalists, distributors, analyzers, archivists, and legal interpreters, all of whom contribute to, and guard accurate and detailed interpretations of, open-source visual material. We spoke to many interviewees and developed a series of short audio extracts containing information, anecdotes, case studies, or personal reflections on the use and relevance of digital archives addressing the documentation of the Syrian conflict and beyond. We wanted to learn from the expertise of various cultural and geographical perspectives, and to think through the future of video archival materials for such applications as building court cases or for the preservation of collective cultural memory.

To highlight and extract lessons and methods from these conversations, we draw from examples discussed with Dima Saber2, a Lebanese researcher in media and cultural studies, and her colleague, the Syrian analyst al-Jaloud3, as well as British feminist researcher and writer Sophie “Soph” Dyer4.

Dima Saber and al-Jaloud shared their experience working closely with the Syrian Archive and described how this led to their collaboration on The Syrian Archive Digital Memory Project. The project offers a unique perspective from the point of view of Syrian image producers and makers: it goes beyond the documentation of human rights violations and justice processes to explore the profound significance of digital archives and their role in shaping and defining collective memory, with a specific focus on the 2011 mass movement of protests and uprisings calling for an end to the al-Assad government. Between 2018 and 2020, they interviewed approximately twenty-five image producers from various cities and towns across Syria. Their interviews aimed at creating an inventory of the methods, practices, and motivations animating citizen journalists, as well as technicalities, such as storage capacities and cameras used. Saber and al-Jaloud also asked about the “mnemonic value of these archives as articulated by their own creators,”5 raising “questions about history, collective memory, and the way video makers thought their fellow Syrians, and the world, would remember the revolution in years to come.”

Dima Saber and al-Jaloud, interview by Foundland Collective and Hannah Rullmann, “YouTube as a Dumpster,” conducted on October 29, 2021, YouTube video, uploaded April 17, 2024, link.

In addition, Dima explained that the project aims to build on established learnings from holocaust studies, which foregrounds the role of survivor testimony as an inherent and valid part of history making. Interestingly, the field of holocaust studies has been the only field in the arts and humanities to acknowledge the stories and testimonies of survivors as valid pieces of history. “There is nowhere else in arts, humanities, and history that people listen to survivors and consider their experiences as evidentiary, as important to make a historical record anywhere else.”6

One of the major hindrances to collating a comprehensive informal archive is access and fragmentation. Many Syrians have left the country; video documentation is spread across many hard drives in different countries. Despite years of image production during the conflict, makers often feel they have not been heard by Western media, even as they undergo continued, traumatic circumstances. Understandably, makers are cautious to share material. The Syrian Digital Memory Project would like to foreground not only evidentiary videos but also memories of everyday life that are integral to living under conflict conditions. As Saber explains, “We forget that during a revolution and a war, things like checking on each other, like songs, like dance” are key to survival.7

Sophie “Soph” Dyer has years of experience related to investigative case building, and has developed a critical and feminist perspective on the processes and motivations behind endeavors like the verification of citizen journalist material. Dyer advocates for transparency and visible working processes toward the verification of video material used by individuals or organizations. From a journalistic perspective, at the moment of an event occurring and of subsequent breaking news reporting, of course, it is important to verify collected evidence. Decisions that are made in the process of verification, however, speak volumes about the values and biases that often come into play. As Dyer suggests, unknowns and uncertainties can and should become a relevant part of the narrative. However, the emphasis is usually placed on building certainty for legal processes, which in turn influences which narratives are prioritized, and which stories and details are foregrounded. Considering a longer-term perspective that goes beyond evidence to be presented in a courtroom is essential to understanding the motivations behind verification processes and determining who will be affected by them. Who will have access to the material in the long-term and through what metadata or lens will the material be “read” and understood later on?

Sophie Dyer, interview by Foundland Collective and Hanna Rullmann, “Being Right Isn’t the Only Thing,” conducted on August 24, 2021, YouTube video, uploaded April 17, 2024, link.

At the time of writing, as we turn our thoughts to what is happening in Gaza and the Occupied Territories in the last months, we have witnessed journalists and image makers being deliberately targeted.8 Many have been killed. Unlike the situation in Syria under conflict, and despite the dangers associated with reporting on the ground, there has been some official news coverage on the borders and inside Gaza. The role of citizen journalists, however, has nevertheless been vital in covering inaccessible areas. Despite the ongoing bombing and assaults, electricity cuts, and continued digital platform blackouts, many filmmakers and local journalists still manage to document and publish what they witness on a daily basis for the world to see. Many image makers have become well known around the world, and speak directly and personally to audiences on social media.

In December 2023, Human Rights Watch published a report on the systemic censorship of Palestine content on Instagram and Facebook, noting that there were “between October and November 2023, over 1,050 takedowns and suppressions of content on Instagram and Facebook posted by Palestinians and their supporters, including about human rights abuses.”9 Attempts to obscure social networks, especially those owned by the company Meta, have seen the suspension of content, restrictions on interaction with content, and shadow banning.10 All signals point to deliberate controlling of the narrative to diminish or silence Palestinian voices and witnesses. The collaboration of social media platforms, and to some extent, of broadcast media, to facilitate this silencing is extremely worrying.

If there can be any positive outlook in this tragic situation, it is the palpable global solidarity with Palestinians that has emerged, taking many different forms. Global liberation movements, oppressed communities, and governments like South Africa and Nicaragua—which have filed cases against Israel (for genocide) and Germany (to halt the sale of arms to Israel), respectively, with the International Court of Justice (ICJ)—recognize severe state oppression at the hands of Israel and call out unacceptable, structural apartheid. There is a growing intersectional consciousness and effort made to learn about the nearly century-long history of oppression of Palestinians. Many connected archives, informal and institutional, play a role in contributing to a holistic, nuanced, and broad understanding of the situation. In line with our motivations behind Real-Time History’s initial project and thanks to the tireless work of citizen journalists, it will hopefully be possible for artists, lawyers, critical thinkers, and loved ones to return to valuable documentation for future, detailed scrutiny. A consoling thought, that if it would be possible to piece together the messy, unofficial, archival remains revealing injustices, then the truth can never be lost.