Digital Narratives and Witnessing: The Ethics of Engaging with Places at a Distance
By Nishat Awan
Key Words: Digital narratives, distance, forensic approach, spatial analysis, witnessing.
This article is about the city called Gwadar in Pakistan. This city is situated on the Arabian Sea coast. It is located about an hour and a half from the Iranian border and an eight-hour drive west to the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Gwadar is situated in the province of Balochistan, which is the largest, yet least populated and poorest province of the country, but one that is the most resource-rich. It, therefore, sits within a very particular set of exploitative relations to the rest of the country, as well as having strategic importance within the region. Nowadays transport and economic corridor have built. 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. In the space of the Internet, the politics of seeing in relation to Gwadar return a very particular perspective that is steeped in the unequal historical relations that the city and province have with the region.
Higgins is the first person to use geolocation techniques on photos taken from social media and by combining these with other media sources. Among Bellingcat’s most effective work has been the tracking of missiles from Russia to parts of Ukraine. Higgins and the volunteers with whom he works use open-source methods and information freely available on the Internet to meticulously piece together events on the other side of the world. In the work of Bellingcat, Higgins, and others, the witness is multiplied; there are several witnesses whose accounts are merged to form a coherent picture. At the same time, the witness has become expert. That is, it takes the painstaking work of people who are versed in the practice of geolocation, of verifying satellite images, and of knowing how to calculate distances and angles from multiple photographs and videos, to create a composite account. It could also be considered a forensic exercise that exits us from the world of the speaking political subject. In recent times, though, things have changed somewhat. In numerous articles commentators have spoken of a crisis of witnessing; that is, in an era of twenty-four-hour news, social media, and the like, the line between testimony and representation is blurring. 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.