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The War Photography of Grand Theft Auto

One man is working to document the digital carnage that unfolds every day on the streets of San Andreas.
January 20, 2014, 9:50pm

Taken at its most basic level, a video game like Grand Theft Auto V can appear to be little more than an endless template for wanton destruction. So when one filmmaker and photographer stepped into the fray of GTA Online, the game's popular online component, he had an interesting idea for how to play it: rather than add to all the commotion and never-ending virtual violence, he'd start taking pictures to document it. The result is a fascinating portrait of life inside Los Santos, GTA's picture-perfect rendition of Los Angeles, only snarkier.


Outside of GTA Online, Christopher Murrie is a filmmaker at the Oregon-based studio Laika who has worked on animated films like Coraline and ParaNorman. In the game, as he explained in a r/gaming post over the weekend, he's begun to play as a "war photographer," using GTA Online's passive viewing mode to follow other players around and snap pictures. He even started his own crew called (appropriately enough) "Media Lens" in order to invite other like-minded GTA players to contribute their own "firsthand images of the war zone that is San Andreas."

So far, his experiment strives to work like real-world combat photography does — complete with its very own (simulated) dangers.

"I should add that my character is wearing camo pants, a black jacket with 'MEDIA' printed across the back, and a helmet," Murrie wrote on Reddit. "I try very hard to find and use the WEZL News van [GTA's parody of Fox News] to drive to the hot spots to take pictures."

"It's fun to see who 'get it' and let me get up close while they fight," he added. "Most people seem to have fun with it, but there is always one guy who can't stop trying to run me over. And they are always dressed as some ridiculous ICP Clown nonsense…"

The idea struck a chord with other GTA Online players. Since he first formed media lens last Friday, the group has swelled to nearly 200 members. Another Reddit user created a new subreddit, /r/GTAVMEDIA/, to curate more of the images outside Rockstar's own social network.

It's tempting to see this as an extension of the selfie trend that began to possess gamers last year, thanks to developers like Rockstar handing players virtual iPhones to start snapping photos of their avatars. But something else comes into play once people like Murrie start using the front-facing camera instead. Edited to have a sepia-like filter and the boxy shape of a medium format camera, his images look like a cross between the work of the famously macabre portrait artist Diane Arbus and a seminal war photographer like Robert Capa.

But can we read any clear social or political message into these images the way that we presumably view real war photography in order to critique armed conflict? Millions of people find harmless pleasure in GTA Online, and Murrie recently told the gaming website Polygon that he sees his photography as simply being yet another way to "explore and interact" with a game series of which he's a longtime fan. The endless feed of hyper violent images that are now spilling out from the game leave one with a bleak portrait of what unfolds within, however — one that's markedly different from the panoply of landscape porn that usually constitutes fan art for games like this.