On Buzzfeed and Syria

September 19, 2013

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to welcome Thomas Gibbons-Neff on board as a WOTR columnist.

Buzzfeed is hip and us millennials all love it. We laugh as Miley Cyrus twerks on the Mona Lisa and we share 26 pictures of dogs that are wearing people clothes or whatever.

Buzzfeed’s lists and pictures and grumpy cats have an undeniable niche in my generation. We love consuming media and we love consuming it fast, but the other day when “33 Surreal Photos of the Civil War in Syria” popped up on Twitter, I remembered why there’s a part of me that cringes when Buzzfeed tries its hand at non-cat/crazy-celebrity things.

No doubt, Buzzfeed does some good reporting. They write some decent articles and post some enjoyable longreads, but usually the two realms of Buzzfeed—the serious and the goofy—keep a good distance from one another.

Not so much with these 33 surreal photos.

The first photo, one of Santa Claus at a checkpoint wielding a Kalashnikov, immediately reminded me of my own experiences in Afghanistan as a Marine infantryman. In between gunfights and patrols, the mundane became the exceptional as we used relics from home to recreate lives 7,000 miles away. On Christmas we took turns sitting on Sgt. Montefusco’s lap who had adorned himself as Father Christmas and on July 4th we gutted a few radios to build makeshift speakers while we shot flares into the sky. Independence Day: Afghan style. Men at war are bored most of the time, which to this day is a shocker for everyone who’s never been.

The Syrian photos continue and the pictures are just as surreal as they promise. Captions like “relaxing”, “posing”, and “a bedroom” are brutally minimalist when juxtaposed with pictures that beg to be put in context. Am I looking at the FSA (“the good guys”) or al-Nusra (“the bad/good guys”)? Buzzfeed doesn’t tell us, because why would they?

Buzzfeed is simply saying: here are pictures of a war that no one understands, but for those of you interested in between looking at pictures of celebrities and the new iPhone, here’s a little death and destruction made palatable and scrollable for your viewing pleasure.

And so, walking through the Corcoran Gallery’s war photography exhibit the other day, I stumbled upon the famous photo essay by Larry Burrows that ran in LIFE Magazine on April 16th, 1965: “Life and Death in Vietnam: One Ride with Yankee Papa 13.”

There was a young couple browsing the exhibit, and to my dismay I watched them Buzzfeed the essay. In one fluid movement it was over, each picture had at least three seconds of their attention before they scrolled on to the next. The crew chief James Farley covered in a wounded copilot’s blood didn’t even get a linger, just one quick nod. They probably didn’t even know that Farley had been in almost every photo, and that in all reality James Farley was the exhibit.

Is “33 Surreal Pictures of the Civil War in Syria” the modern equivalent to Larry Burrows’ photo essay? It might as well be to my generation. Our standards are lower because we want our wars and our cat pictures within two clicks of one another. We don’t seem to care that some men in those 33 pictures might be members of an Al-Qaeda affiliate who just executed a fourteen-year old boy for refusing to bring them coffee. So it goes.

Maybe one day Buzzfeed will post “20 pictures from an Arlington Burial” so everyone else will know what that feels like in two minutes or less. It will be the totality of war, buzzfed.

The photo captions would read as such: “flag”, “crying”, “gun salute”, and finally “taps.”


Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and a deputy editor at The Hoya.