15. Nishat Awan (2016) Digital Narratives and Witnessing

Nishat Awan (2016) Digital Narratives and Witnessing:


A Great paper. I learnt a lot about present digital witnessing techniques and was impressed by some of the techniques (forensic architetcure,Humanitarian OpenStreetMap ,MicroMappers). As digital technology becomes more pervasive and ubiquitous digital witnessing will become more important and reliable as a witness. I think for any traumatic event digital witnessing techniques should compliment the normal fields of investigation to arrive at a correct depiction of events and help in quickening relief sponsored efforts. Thank you Nishat a great paper.

Key Words: Digital narratives, distance, forensic approach, spatial analysis, witnessing.

This article explores the fraught issue of how we might have an ethical engagement with places that are at a distance from us.

Distance in this sense is not just about being located far away or being inaccessible, but it speaks of those places that through their material conditions repel us in some way, or from which we are repelled.Whereas in the past, such places would remain out-of-sight and out of our consciousness, increasingly they reveal themselves to us. Often this occurs through the use of digital technologies, from the impulse to map and create a digital globe of the whole world to the various social media platforms that transmit images and videos

More than ever before, we are compelled to act, to somehow feel responsible for and bear witness to what occurs at a distance from us.

Pakistani city of Gwadar As a deep sea port, it is highly prized for the access it provides to the Arabian Sea, and China. Searching for Gwadar on the Internet returns articles on oil pipelines, deep sea ports, and China and India’s competing interests in the region. Not only is it becoming increasingly visible to the outside world due to its geopolitical importance, but physical access to it is also being restricted by the Pakistani military.

It shifts the focus from looking at the spatial reach of different types of actors to the mechanisms that allow them to transcend notions of distance.

Here the role of digital maps, the ability to remote sense places, and the role of social media cannot be overemphasized.


What Is Crowdsourcing? It’s a way to collect data — knowingly or unknowingly — about streets, landmarks, speed limits, and more from a large number of individual users.

Digital mapping (also called digital cartography) is the process by which a collection of data is compiled and formatted into a virtual image. The primary function of this technology is to produce maps that give accurate representations of a particular area, detailing major road arteries and other points of interest. The technology also allows the calculation of distances from one place to another.Though digital mapping can be found in a variety of computer applications the main use of these maps is with the Global Positioning System, or GPS satellite network, used in standard automotive navigation systems.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap

One important arena in which digital technologies are produ- cing visual material of distant places in crisis is in the context of humanitarian action. Platforms such as Ushahidi and groups such as the Standby Task Force, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, and Crisis Mappers all use digital mapping techniques combined with crowdsourcing via Short Message Service (SMS) or Twitter to respond rapidly to disasters and to assist humanitarian agencies in directing their efforts toward those most at risk.

One key critique has been the distant nature of such endeavors that could be seen to use technology as a proxy through which to administer aid, while keeping Western humani- tarian agents safe and out of harm’s way (Duffield 2013).

One could trace a genealogy of image- making from that single broadcast to the situation as it is today, where techniques of digital storytelling and virtual reality are being used by aid agencies as a way of communicating with the affected populations as well as with potential donors

Clouds over Sidra, made in collaboration with the United Nations, which follows a young Syrian girl around the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan. The award-winning virtual reality film premièred at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was credited with increasing the amount of aid pledged to the cause by world leaders (Anderson 2015; Feltham 2015). The film is a good successor to Buerk’s BBC report because both rely on the notion of witnessing to mobilize passions. We are shown the emaciated child crying at the pain of hunger, or the harsh realities of life in a desert refugee camp, to provoke a response from us at an emotional level

ethiopia: In the BBC report, the familiar and trusted face of the presenter gave an authenticity not only to the images, but also to the accompanying analysis, however simplified and unreliable it might have been

In Clouds over Sidra, a completely different dynamic is at play. We are now in the era of the ubiquity of the image, of the hypercomplexity of politics, where black-and-white understandings of right and wrong are simply not possible.

whose witnessing could be trustworthy enough? The simple and rather cynical answer that Clouds over Sidra provides us with is yourself and yourself alone. Virtual reality transports us to the refugee camp, where we can see “firsthand” the traumatic conditions and hear the personal stories of refugees who seem to be addressing us alone.

Virtual reality, funda- mentally, is a technology that removes borders. … Anything can be local to you”

This work places the burden of proof on the refugee, in this case a twelve-year-old girl, who has to show us her destitution and her will in the face of it; she has to perform it.

No longer reliant on the mediation of newsroom editors and professional journalists in the field, today the images we consume of various crises are often sent by members of the public, people who happen to be there at the time. There is an authenticity and immediacy associated with such images,

he project Dronestagram by the artist James Bridle is a good example of how seeing through digital technology can produce a different practice of witnessing (Bridle 2015).As leaked reports and the testimonies of former soldiers has slowly revealed the reality of the U.S. drone warfare program, it has become increasingly apparent that beyond the illegality of such acts, what the U.S. government was claiming in terms of the number of casualties and the accuracy of the bombs was a far cry from the reality on the groundDronestagram is a photo sharing community dedicated to drone photography. The site that has been described as “Instagram for drones”, allows hobbyists to share their geo-referenced aerial photos and videos.[1] The site launched in July 2013 by Eric Dupin and is owned by his company Dronescape.[2][3] The project is based in Lyon, France. There is also an dronestagram iOS app.[4]


Using freely available satellite imagery from Google Earth, Bridle shows the visual reality of areas inaccessible and out of bounds to those in the West and also to most citizens of the countries in which the bombs fell.

He wrote that they are “places most of us will never see. We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them”

They are somehow rendered consumable by Bridle, allowing us to see the reality of the places that the United States and its allies might claim were remote outposts, hamlets consisting of a few buildings, but were also places where people lived out their daily lives. Of course, there were other sources of information, other narratives that we could have chosen to listen to had we the appetite

Tribal leaders and ordinary people from the affected areas were telling of the exact toll that the bombings were taking.



Bellingcat Eliot Higgins,Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.what happens to the witness when the claims that are being made do not come from the testimony of individuals but are made through combining multiple narratives?

The starting point for this Bellingcat investigation was the distribution of updated satellite imagery from Google (DigitalGlobe satellite imagery) with a panchromatic resolution of 0.5m from the territory of eastern Ukraine and its border regions with Russia (17 July to 31 August 2014 satellite images). Additionally, the Bellingcat investigation team analyzed videos shared on social media (YouTube and VKontakte) and geolocated the events captured in these videos to key sites involved in the artillery attacks on Ukraine.

analysis focused on the probable angle of a munition thrown across the wall by the Israeli army. Another project focused on what has come to be known as the Left-to-die Boat, a migrant vessel making its way from Libya toward Europe through one of the most heavily watched maritime zones. Here they used surveillance technologies to show the number of different actors who could have rescued the stricken vessel but who used the overlapping jurisdictions at sea to not do so, resulting in the deaths of more than sixty people.

The work of Eyal Weizman and his research agency, Forensic Architecture


The examples of Dronestagram, Bellingcat, and Forensic Architecture give a glimpse of what type of engagement with a place that is caught up in geopolitics is possible through digital means. The three emergent practices combine spatial analysis with investigative journalism to engage with places that are in conflict, where it is difficult to spend time in the field. Although there is much to be learned from this work, it also serves as a warning.

In giving precedence to the stories that images and objects tell, the narratives of political subjects are taken to not be as “true” as those gleaned through scientific techniques.

For an understanding of how the Pakistani military has come to use drones against its own citizens, some knowledge of the province’s colonial past is useful.

We then see water bubbling up from the ground followed by images of dead fish floating in pools of water. Suddenly matches are being struck near the openings in the ground—the flame goes out immediately!

MicroMappers (Leson, Lucas, and Meier 2016). This is a microtasking app that enables large numbers of people to contribute toward filtering the vast amounts of data generated around an humanitarian event.
What affected efforts to track damage and casualties the most was that people in the area simply did not tweet, or at least this was the conclusion that the article came to, as did the developers of the platform (A simpler explanation for why MicroMappers were not able to find many tweets could be that no one could speak Balochi or Urdu and they did not have translation capabilities.

Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain but it is claimed that thousands of activists, those accused of being insurgents and ordinary people, have disappeared across Balochistan.

They show that although there are many advantages to using digital techniques, not least the possibility of a form of engagement with places that are not easily accessed, such techniques come with their own limitations. There is a problematic filtering that occurs through the technological gaze, which is related to the way in which it has transformed the practice of witnessing.

This means that although on the one hand we see everything almost live and unedited, on the other the narratives that emerge are heavily mediated
this distinction (and impasse) between what we see and what we can say about what we’ve seen raises some important questions about just what a witness can say and the consequences of that utterance upon those within metaphorical earshot”