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Grievable images – the war in Ukraine in visual social media

The war in Ukraine and its refugees have evoked a wave of compassion among Europeans, to an extent that has not been seen with people fleeing the war in Syria, for instance. An overview of social media content illustrating the war helps us understand how the visualisation of the war influences people’s perceptions and attitudes towards Ukrainians. By emphasising the Europeanness of Ukraine, the threat posed by Russia and the clear moral set-up of the war, the images bring Ukrainian fates closer and make them grievable.

Juulia Heikkinen and Taina Meriluoto

The text was originally published in Finnish on May 13, 2022 in the sociological online media Ilmiö.

After Russia attacked Ukraine, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok have flooded with war-related visual content. The Finnish and more generally the Western social media universe is dominated by content that sympathises Ukraine and its defensive war, spreads information about war events and call for solidarity towards Ukraine. Through visual social media, the war raging close to us has come even closer.

On the other hand, the unprecedented amount of solidarity towards Ukrainians has highlighted the contrast between the reception of white refugees and refugees from Global South. While Ukrainian refugees – for good reason – have been welcomed with open arms, a similar wave of compassion has not been felt in Europe for people fleeing the war in Syria, for instance.

In this article, we analyse the flow of images in social media to understand how this different attitude is constructed. We use Judith Butler’s concept of grievability to explain the differences made between victims of war: why does the suffering of some victims feel totally unbearable to many Europeans while other wars just flash by in social media and thoughts? How is the war in Ukraine made grievable for the European audience through visual means?

Although our article looks into the building blocks of grievability, it does not mean that we would consider Ukrainians’ distress in any way ungenuine or artificially created. Instead, the purpose of our article is to provide the western audience with tools to understand how our own interpretation of the war is constructed.

Images in social media as a commentary on the war

In this article, we analyse visual materials on the war in Ukraine as collected from Instagram and Twitter. With the aid of our colleague Vasilis Maltezos, we downloaded 3,800 images from Instagram, published with hashtags related to the war in Ukraine (such as #slavaukraini, #standwithukraine, #fuckputin). The download date was 18 March 2022, in other words, the images had been published in the weeks after Russia’s attack. In addition, we have saved 277 image-containing Twitter posts related to the war in Ukraine from the period 28 February–18 April 2022.

We analysed the images with the research approach developed in the ImagiDem project, in which especially image pairs, comparisons and contrast creation were identified as typical forms of visual political argumentation. First, we looked at our extensive materials focusing particularly on visual comparisons and assimilations: what kinds of similarities or differences are created with images.

Adapting the concept of visual frame analysis, we consider the flow of images in social media as a commentary on events in the physical world, utilising ready-made interpretations and value set-ups and offering them to us to understand the war. In social media, framing happens on multiple layers: users repeat, reinforce and question certain interpretation of the war by creating, liking and sharing content. On the other hand, the algorithms of social media platforms influence the available interpretation possibilities by controlling and organising the content pushed to users. Furthermore, our culture directs our interpretations: what kinds of content make us wake up and stop scrolling? Which of the things that we come across do we have concepts for and how do we usually look at and evaluate these things?

The images we collected shocked us researchers. Looking at them felt awful and analysing them seemed sometimes wrong: what right do we have to look at images of war at an analytical distance? Finally, it was just this stunning shock when faced with the images that started to interest us: why just this war feels so different to us – especially terrible and especially sad?

Whose lives do we grieve?

In her book Frames of War. When Is Life Grievable?,, Judith Butler writes how war time offers us an opportunity to contemplate who we are. She states that we can see ourselves by asking whose lives we consider worth grieving. According to Butler, grievability requires that we recognise life as life. In other words, another person’s life must have certain characteristics we have set for life for us to be able to grieve its loss.

Judith Butler states that we can see ourselves by asking whose lives we consider worth grieving.

Recognising another person’s life requires seeing it first. Visual social media offers an unprecedently efficient way to do this. However, Butler distinguishes between different modes of seeing. Apprehending and recognising are two different things. According to Butler, apprehending is cursory noticing: registering something without deeper contemplation or understanding. In the flow of images in social media, countless fates that could shock us flow past us constantly. However, most of them we just apprehend – they just visit our eyes and minds briefly.

Instead, recognising is recognising a thing as being of certain kind. It refers to meeting certain norms of being and being visible, existing within this framework and thus recognising someone or something through them. We understand what that life or person is when we recognise them through the frames that structure our life and interpretations. They fit in with our conceptions of what life is like, what it looks like and with what kinds of words and images it can be described.

These frames – available frameworks of seeing and being visible – are very strongly socially and culturally constructed. In our culture, there are certain prevailing norms of being visible, such as (binary) gender representations, through which we recognise someone as “a man” or “a woman”. According to Butler, “life” is similarly governed by culturally determined set of norms of recognisability, which must be fulfilled for the loss of life to be grievable.

In her study, Moya Lloyd has demonstrated how this code set that makes life recognisable divided people hierarchically and, as a result, creates inequality. Some people’s lives are more aligned with the set of norms we have created for life and thus more grievable.

We look at our image materials asking how the social media images of the war in Ukraine create this recognisability. How are the lives of the victims of the war in Ukraine tied visually to characteristics with which we – Europeans following the war on social media – see and recognise them and the grieve for them – perhaps more than the victims of wars in more distant parts of the world?

We propose that grievability is produced with three main visual means. These are: to emphasise the Europeanness of Ukraine, to produce a shared feeling of threat posed by Russia and to individualise the victims of the war.

European Ukraine

A dominant feature in the visual content created about the war in Ukraine is references to the Western and European culture, art and history. Images of Kievan architecture, covered statues and destroyed schools and concert halls tell the story of a civilised and advanced Ukraine, in which white, stereotypically European-looking people suffer for the rest of Europe.

There is often something familiar in the images of horror, helping people imagine themselves in Ukrainians’ position: a familiar-looking playground with a missile jutting in the sand, a Golden Retriever lifted from ruins. One image shows the bare back of a toddler, on which the parent has written the child’s name and personal details in case the child loses the parents in the war. The toddler is wearing only a diaper – identical to the one worn by the child of one of the writers of this article.

With its Bible metaphors and take away lattes, the imagery is recognisable and touches the European identity, which, according to Christoffer Kølvraa, is largely based on two hidden assumptions: Europeans are better than others and everyone wants to be a European. In this narrative, Ukraine is fighting to be recognised as European and Europeans may feel good about themselves when generously accepting Ukrainians as a part of “the European family”. In a pair of images, a wounded mother nursing her child is assimilated with a wounded Virgin Mary in an icon-like image. Similar assimilations appear frequently in the flow of images: they frame the events of the war in Ukraine as European painting motifs, holy and pure.

In addition to cultural references, historical assimilations are a frequently featured visual theme. For instance, the “Glory to Ukraine” account has published a series of image pairs, in which images familiar from the Second World War appear next to a visually similar image from today’s Ukraine, with the caption “Europe is re-living”, hinting that Europe is re-living the horrors of the Second World War. In this manner, grievability is evoked with historical-political materials, which make use of hindsight and collective emotional memory: we must act to prevent the history’s errors from being repeated. On the other hand, the assimilation shows that what we have at hand is a battle over Europe with significance comparable to the world wars, genuinely a moment that decides the fate of Europe.

Europeanness and Westernness are visually displayed as almost exclusively positive, “our” world, the existence of which is being threatened. By emphasising these aspects, Ukraine is made familiar and like us, a family member. Conversely, our images of yellow-and-blue shot glasses or a yellow field of flowers and blue sky, communicating our solidarity, link our everyday environment as a part of Ukrainians’ combat. New meanings are noticed in our everyday views and turned into anti-war symbols. With images, Ukraine is made familiar and, on the other hand, familiar things are associated with Ukraine.

Although Europeanness and Westernness are depicted as Ukrainians’ fantasy and goal, it is also viewed critically. Social media space is claimed by content, in which Europeans are challenged to live and act according to their declared values: a social media account following Russian oil tankers demands European countries to stop importing oil and natural gas from Russia. The caption of an image showing Ukrainian children sleeping in a bomb shelter asks if Europeans could settle for less living comfort even for these children.

The visual materials convey a conception of Ukrainians as Europe’s moral leaders who, instead of passiveness and verbal embroidery, have taken action to defend European values and way of life. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky has risen to the position of a mythical action hero in images resembling movie posters, in which he is described as “invincible”. Mothers making Molotov cocktails and tractors towing Russian tanks gain the admiration of the West, mixed with feelings of shame and guilt due to the one’s own powerlessness. This kind of message is likely to evoke positive responses in audiences in Eastern European countries, which have been, since the collapse of the Communist systems, considered (for the West’s point of view) to lag behind in development and live at the cost of the prosperous Europe, as failed versions of European democracies. Perhaps for the first time ever, Eastern Europe gets a chance to define the ideals of Europeanness.

Threatening and ridiculed Russia

While Europe and the Westernness is presented with positive associations in the flow of images, Russia and especially Putin are depicted as its negative opposite. In this framing, two main lines can be perceived: Putin’s Russia as an absolute evil and Putin’s Russia as a subject of ridicule.

On the basis of the flow of images visible to the European audience in social media, even a person who is not familiar with the events of the war could easily deduct which side to take. As researchers Jessie Barton Hronešová and Emma Rimpiläinen have noted, Europeans’ strong willingness to help is probably partly explained by the fact that the set-up of the war seems substantially clearer than the crises in the Middle East, for instance. The enemy is common and familiar: Russia’s attack is a shocking event to witness as a contemporary but also activates historical traumas in many.

It is known of the algorithms of digital media that images of violence and tragedy gets most visibility. News photographs of the war convey violence as a must-click spectacle. The visualisation of the war in Ukraine in social media runs alongside and intermixed news photographs, commenting the events and using the familiar imagery of the battle between the good and the evil. As the researcher of political memes Saara Särmä notes, the imagery uses historical cultural heritage: Putin is Darth Vader, Voldemort, Hitler, Goliath, an extreme evil, against which underdogs defend themselves against all odds. The communications style of the social media culture reinforces clear moral set-ups. Roles are offered ready-made by applying a familiar meme template to the Ukrainian context, for instance – the familiar meme alone lets the audience know who the hero is and who is laughed at.

Alongside depicting a threatening, dystopian Russia, the visual content of social media laughs at Russia. Especially Putin is shown no mercy; he is depicted in various contexts, as a pitiful toddler or swimming butterfly in an attempt to escape a Ukrainian tractor, for instance. Other objects of ridicule include, for instance, the fumbling of Russian troops and the poor condition of their military equipment. Humour not only alleviates fear but also belittles and others the enemy. Russia and Russians are depicted as backward, cowardly and easy to fool. On the other hand, Ukrainians are inventive in their homespun forms of resistance, which communicate creativity under duress and lighten up the imagery of war. Everyday things have become war equipment: bags of dog food are used in building roadblocks and piles of books protect windows against explosions.

Suffering individuals force us to stop

In addition to fantastical and dystopian themes, Ukrainians’ individual stories and fates emerge in the flow of images. These images do not focus on the ideal Europe or the threatening Russia but everyday life. They talk from people to people, show daily life and its ugly and incomprehensible breakdown. Images work, on one hand, by naming and individualising the victims of the war – by making them appear as whole persons to us. On the other hand, they work by describing the very familiar-looking Ukrainian everyday life, and its interruption. Ordinary, interrupted, whole life is more relatable than a black-and-white description of a person as either good or bad or the large-scale suffering of faceless victims. The war is not just a strange nightmare that dries up the springs of empathy. It is also everyday things and small relatable moments. It is longing for the normal: in the middle of a destroyed town, an old lady is keeping her flower shop open.

When compared to conflicts taking places further away, the social media images about the war in Ukraine clearly highlight individuals with names, families, jobs, pets and hobbies. A person following the war in social media knows that this soldier, who died in the battle of Irpin, was the European military multisport champion and that a 3-year-old girl in Kharkiv has lived in a pharmacy for a month as her pharmacist mother persistently delivers medicinal products to the inhabitants of her bombed city. As Moya Lloyd writes, from the perspective of making something familiar, naming and individualising are recognising at its strongest; an individual cannot then be ignored as part of a mass – a selfie on your screen, with its individual story, forces one to recognise and stop to contemplate the human fate. We are not only horrified by the number of the victims of the war but also grieve their unique lives.

For its part, highlighting individuals complies with the algorithmic logic of social media: subjectivity and personal experiences are the typical communication style of social media. At the same time, realistic descriptions of everyday life and human life in general conform to social media’s narrative mode that values authenticity and honesty. The impression of individuals’ genuineness makes them more relatable to us, like us, our peers. A whole person is more recognisable and genuine than “a good guy” or “a bad guy”.

Familiar suffering creates grievability

In this article, we have discussed how different ways of visualising the war in Ukraine create and strengthen the grievability of Ukrainian fates. The analysis is significant not only for describing the visualisation of the war: it is self-evident that the feelings and solidarity evoked by the war in Ukraine also influence the physical reality and political choices: the aid we send to Ukraine, attitudes towards people fleeing the war, Finland’s future relationship with Russia. Our perception of and feelings about the conflict define Ukrainian’s “cultural place” and thus things like our encounters with Ukrainian refugees, who, already upon arrival, seem more familiar to Europeans who follow the war on social media than, for instance, Syrian refugees.

In the flow of images illustrating the war in Ukraine, we face a wide range of visual content, which in its various combinations, takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions. Amid images full of the ideal European Ukraine and the threatening Russia, there are also many everyday elements: shock is mixed with the normal and the familiar. The combination of familiarity and horror pushes many buttons in the viewer, making it possible to recognise one’s own life in Ukrainians and imagine it interrupted in the same manner.

Social media images have become a very day-to-day form of communication and self-expression, especially for young people: by taking, sharing, commenting and following images, we try to understand the world surrounding us and give it different meanings. That is why the social media commentary that follows the war in real time offers us an opportunity to understand, first and foremost, the European audience: how do we make the war more comprehensible to ourselves?

In this article, we propose that we look at the images of the war through ourselves. In the images, we see ourselves and our family, relatives and friends. We recognise everyday situations amid ruins and are shocked when we understand how similar our lives are. We also see Ukrainians’ resistance in the images and want to think that we would be equally brave. We see individuals with all their characteristics, daily matters and small concerns. We set ourselves and emotions that are recognisable to us at centre stage in the images of war. We look at the war but at the same time we also look at ourselves. In this way, the war becomes not only shocking but also clear: we know on whose side we are, but also who we are.


Images: All images are materials collected from social media for this article.