“Citizens living throughout the Middle East were risking their lives to air their grievances against their rulers long before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even enrolled at Harvard nine years ago. This year, though, they’ve taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers, and they’re using social media to organize themselves.”
— Lawrence Lanahan, WYPR, Baltimore
Whether coordinating mass demonstrations, reporting on police crackdowns in real-time, or voicing their exuberance as revolution ripples through the Middle East, activists and ordinary citizens alike have used social media in ways that have carried over into the “real” world.
On a smaller scale, U.S. Marines fighting in Afghanistan and a group of journalists have been using social media in ways that resonate in the “real” world too. Last summer photojournalist Teru Kuwayama got a nod from Knight News Challenge – to the tune of $202,000 – to invent new journalism using digital media in Afghanistan.
Kuwayama, who has spent the past decade reporting on conflict in the Middle East and Pakistan, built a media pipeline called One-Eight: Bastetrack. It’s a web-based reporting initiative in which Kywayama and fellow photographers Balzas Gardi and Tivadar Domaniczky embed with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. As soon as he got the Knight grant Kywayama began shoring up his team of researchers, photographers, web designers, and code writers with people that he’d worked with over the course of covering the effects of war for publications like Time, Newsweek, Outside, and National Geographic.
“I saw a possibility for pulling in remarkable and talented people who were being misused by the conventional media,” he told the New York Times in December. “I was trying to give them the opportunity to do it their way, to do it right.”
Over the last seven months the three journalists have lived with the unit, gone on patrol, taken combat and portrait photographs, and with digital audio and video recorders – made it possible for the Marines to covey a little piece of who they are.
Some of the interviews are standard military issue, others feel more intimate and revealing. The topics range from families and upbringing to why they enlisted to what they’re reading to close calls they’ve had in the field. As I listened to their voices and peered into their faces I felt privileged to be invited into the world that these young men and women share. Listen for yourself: Lt Trojacek. LCpl Phillips. Cpl Clark. Cpl Cain.
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in US history. Kuwayama’s willingness to risk his own life to get these pictures and stories springs from frustration at his sense that that most of the American public has tuned it out.
“Wherever (people) fall on the spectrum of the war, they should be thinking about the war,” Kuwayama says of the American people. “If we’re going to fight a war, then we should do it consciously.”
Besides bringing in seasoned journalists to document the conflict, Kuwayama’s answer to elevating Americans’ consciousness of the war is to engage women and men who are fighting it.
“We create a pipeline between 1,000 Marines working in very austere, isolated conditions in southern Afghanistan and connect them to their mothers, their fathers, their wives, their girlfriends, their husbands and their kids,” Kuwayama says.
But whether it’s citizens in Tahrir Square or American soldiers acting as battlefield documentarians, unfiltered conflict can be a politically sensitive matter. Basetrack managed to gain traction with several foundations including the Nieman Foundation and the TED Fellows program for “paradigm-shifters.” A broadcasting partnership with the PRI program The World was newly underway when the entire project was unexpectedly shut down by officials from the U.S. Marine Corp citing “security concerns.”
As the project has played out, it is the project’s Facebook page that has added a unique dimension, in effect becoming an online support group for military families who have Marines fighting in Helmand Province and beyond. “What is happening pretty fast is that the mothers, girlfriends, husbands, etc., started searching for pictures of the Marines and then posted them on the Web site.” Kuwayama said in an interview. “You constantly hear these lamentations about the death of journalism,” Kuwayama adds, “It doesn’t look like that to me. It looks like the birth of journalism.”