Neda Agha-Soltan falls to the ground after suffering a rifle shot to the chest, as captured by one of three anonymous bystanders who recorded her death.
This view of Agha-Soltan dying from one of the videos became an iconic image for the Green Movement, drawing power from the horror of a beautiful and innocent young womanís face disappearing under streams of her blood.
... where finishing a video of her death summons a flurry of suggestions for what to watch next, confronting the viewer with numerous repetitions and variations of her bloodied face.
The videos of Agha-Soltanís death established her as a powerful martyr for the Green Movement, helping to continue the protests that had been surging through the streets of Tehran (a June 18th, 2009 instance is pictured here) and fueling supportive demonstrations worldwide.
Abraham Zapruderís 8mm film of President Kennedyís death did not air on U.S. television until 1975, 12 years after it he shot it; digital video of Agha-Soltanís death, by contrast, played on YouTube within hours of her death.
The image record of 2011ís Arab Spring (pictured here in an Egyptian demonstration) focused less on what people recorded than on the fact of their recording en masse, as pictures of protestors holding cell phones aloft circulated heavily.
Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, Grantís shooter, stands trial.
A memorial to Agha-Soltan in Dubai, which actually features a photo of a different woman, Neda Soltani, who was mistakenly identified as the slain Agha-Soltan through her Facebook profile. When her image was circulated as Agha-Soltanís, Soltani fled Iran for fear of government actions against her merely because of her false association with Agha-Soltan.
Synchronized frames from each of the three cameras that recorded Agha-Soltanís death.
The Blair Witch Project (in)famously used shaky, handheld cinematography in 1999 to give a documentary feel to footage that is, within the story of the film, supposed to be documentary.
Both news coverage of and public reactions to Agha-Soltan placed great value on her gender, youth, and beauty as primary factors in the sadness of her death.
Neda Agha-Soltan’s death occurred several months later on the other side of the globe. In Iran, many had taken to the streets in massive protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely considered to be fraudulent. Among them on June 20th was Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman protesting peacefully in Tehran, accompanied by her music instructor, Hamid Panahi. As the two left the crowd and attempted to return to their car, Agha-Soltan was struck in the chest by a rifle bullet and died moments later; witnesses reported that she was shot from a nearby rooftop by a member of the government-allied Basij militia. As in Grant’s case, several bystanders with cell phone cameras got footage of this public killing.
The first Agha-Soltan video posted to YouTube and the most widely viewed shows the anonymous camera operator approaching her as Panahi and Dr. Arash Hejazi, a bystander, lay her on the ground and press their hands to her chest, trying to stop her bleeding. As the operator circles past them to get a clear shot of Agha-Soltan’s face, she appears to look directly at the camera just before blood begins to pour from her mouth and then nose. More people gather and begin to scream as she continues to bleed and as attempts to save her become more frantic, at which point the 40-second video cuts out. Another begins with an anonymous operator’s thumb blocking the lens – a reminder that these are images captured by non-professionals in a chaotic situation. The operator approaches Agha-Soltan and the puddle of blood she is lying in, then passes over Panahi’s shoulder to enframe her face, already covered with blood that is pooling in one of her eyes, the other open and staring blankly.[open endnotes in new window]
This startling close-up was widely reproduced as a still image by the Green Movement and their international allies for use at protests and in online efforts to gather support for their cause. Understanding the risk the videos posed to those behind and in front of the cameras, their anonymous authors sent them out of Iran to friends who distributed them online and to news outlets. YouTube’s administrators refrained from taking them down and as the videos made waves in the site’s “attention economy” – where audience engagement is the sought-after commodity – major U.S. news networks also aired them. All of this took only hours, with Agha-Soltan’s recorded death streaming online and televised on the day she died. The videos even spread within Iran, where the government tried, with moderate success, to cut off public access to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Iranians saw the videos on non-state television channels via satellite dishes or sent them from cell phone to cell phone using Bluetooth connections.
My intention in discussing Grant and Agha-Soltan’s deaths together is not to equate them, but rather to show differences in their circumstances, how they were recorded, and how their videos circulated, as well as the impact of those differences on activist responses to each death. When videos of both deaths were quickly streamed online, they entered an environment of death’s limitless repetition in time and multiplication in space. Users could watch the signs of death’s finality register in each video, then return instantly to that video’s beginning, reviving the dead and watching it all again.
This mode of viewing is the sort André Bazin so passionately decried: the casual repetition of a temporally sacred moment that, he asserts, should remain unrepeatable. At the time of his writing in 1958, such an act would have required the physical rolling back of a celluloid reel, but on YouTube it is made easy, even encouraged, by the “Replay” button that prominently appears whenever a video ends. And because Grant and Agha-Soltan’s deaths were each recorded on several cameras – with the footage from each posted and reposted in many forms by many users – Bazin’s sacred moment multiplies not just in time but in (virtual) space, as well. That expansion is visualized whenever one finishes watching an Agha-Soltan selection, for example, and is then inundated with suggestions of other videos YouTube thinks may be of further interest, including more material of the same incident.
Thus, if “Replay” does not appeal, one can instead select from the many little thumbnail images of her bleeding face to see other angles or alternate postings of the same video.
The YouTube viewing experience described above seems to invite a certain callousness, and yet the act of watching these streaming videos – likely more than once and from more than one angle – helped fuel political responses and actions by or on behalf of the Green Movement. Theorists such as Dean and Juhasz, quoted above, express justified skepticism about these progressive powers of new media, but it is hard to deny that the Green Movement put social media – especially Twitter and YouTube – to work for large-scale political actions. Within Iran, activists used them to come together in the streets and navigate through government opposition, fully engaging in the “ground-level organization work” and the “planning, discipline, sacrifice, and delay” that Dean sees being phased out by low-investment virtual actions.
Outside Iran, people did take to the streets to demonstrate in solidarity (having learned about the Green Movement online, in many cases), but also used new media tools to spread awareness. In addition, they used these tools to interfere actively with the Iranian government’s assault against the protestors. Western Internet users provided proxy servers to keep lines of communication with the protestors open in the face of governments attempts to cut them off. And many on Twitter changed their location and time zone settings to make it seem as if they were in Tehran, making it harder for government agents to find and persecute actual Iranian organizers through Twitter.
That agents were looking for the protestors on Twitter exemplifies the dark side of new media’s political potential. As scholars have regularly noted since the 2009 protests in Iran, these media have been wielded by activists against governments and by governments against activists, as the powers-that-be adapt and learn the technologies. Stories from Iran in 2009 or varied countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 demonstrate that we must temper excitement about the good new media can do for activists with an awareness of the evil it can do for oppressive regimes. But it is unwise to disregard the former in light of the latter – particularly after the Green Movement and the Arab Spring and even actions within U.S. borders in 2011 through pro-union protests in Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street. Though very different in scope and stakes, these events all demonstrate that activists, not just the governments they protest, have a learning curve with new media. They are still discovering how material and virtual forms of resistance can be mutually supportive and need not be exclusive.
With Grant and Agha-Soltan, digital technology enabled the recording and circulation of deaths that fueled political causes. “Citizen journalists” in both situations were on hand and technologically equipped to document brutal killings that the press did not capture – or could not in Iran because of the ban on non-state media. Digital distribution plays a key role with the Grant and Agha-Soltan videos, as well. Long before it was an option, Abraham Zapruder sold his 8mm footage of President Kennedy’s death to Time, Inc., who locked it away in vaults for twelve years before it was shown on U.S. television (illegally). By contrast, footage of Grant and Agha-Soltan streamed online within hours or days of their deaths, much less constrained by the power of governments or news corporations. Both deaths pose dangers to the governments they reflect so poorly on – signifying racial discrimination and police brutality in the United States, and politically repressive violence in Iran.
Yet no government or corporation could shut away a digital video clip in 2009 the way one could an 8mm film in 1963. Such clips can be uploaded to YouTube in minutes, often directly from the phones that recorded them, where they can be played, replayed, and downloaded freely – a system that provides the public with unprecedented access to raw actuality footage. Even in Iran, where the government tried mightily to deprive protesters of the digital communication channels that so aided their cause, such channels proved impossible to fully block. They provide, as journalist Youssef Ibrahim puts it, “a new wrinkle for autocratic regimes experienced at quiet repression.”
Amateur footage of newsworthy events, even of death, is a phenomenon with roots deeper than the digital era, as exemplified by Zapruder’s 8mm film. His footage of Kennedy – along with other 1960s death images, such as Saigon Execution – has a sheen of “I can’t believe they caught that on camera.” Today, however, the recording of public deaths feels almost inevitable, not only because of the rapid technological advancements that have put more cameras in public space, but because of the social norms that have begun to solidify in the course of those advancements. In situations where violence and death may occur, such as the Green Movement’s protests, citizens now tend to be in quick-draw mode with their cameras – always ready to record. This shift is apparent in the bits of death footage that circulated during 2011’s Arab Spring, but even more so in those uprisings’ iconic meta-images of protestors holding their cell phone cameras aloft and recording en masse. The salient point, these images suggested, was the act of recording itself – a new force of surveillance rising up to challenge the centrally controlled Panopticon (though still subject to exploitation by those in power).
Helped into existence and brought before the public eye via digital technology, the Grant and Agha-Soltan videos propelled some into political action and generally drew tremendous attention to these deaths. For the Agha-Soltan videos, this was attention on a global scale, but the Grant videos traveled beyond U.S. borders significantly less. This disparity is evidenced by the statistics YouTube publicly provides on some videos’ circulation. Comparing two of the most popular Grant and Agha-Soltan videos, Grant’s receives the vast majority of its views within the United States, also making small inroads in Canada, Australia, and Northern Europe. The Agha-Soltan video garners equal attention in the United States and Iran, but also accumulates more significant view counts in Canada, Australia, and Northern Europe than Grant’s and has noticeable visibility in countries such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and Algeria. In fact, though the Grant case was discussed nationally in African American and activist communities, its mainstream media coverage remained mostly regional. Agha-Soltan’s death, by comparison, received in-depth coverage by media outlets worldwide.
While unjust treatment of African Americans by law enforcement is perceived as a commonplace among Oakland residents, the existence of clear video evidence that a white transit cop fatally shot a black passenger lying prone on the ground galvanized locals and brought masses of protesters into the streets on more than one occasion. Indeed, the protests began not in the immediate wake of the shooting itself, but following the broadcast of the Grant videos on YouTube and on local news. While a small number in Oakland participated in looting and destruction, most protested peacefully, calling for justice, brandishing photographs of Grant, and sometimes lying down in the street in bodily mimicry of the nonthreatening position he was in when shot. The racial dynamics of Grant’s death, the fact that it was recorded, and the palpable outrage it inspired in a major urban area brought comparisons to the Rodney King case (though King survived his beating by police).
The magnitude of response from the media and the public is, however, not comparable in these two cases. King’s became a major national news story and the acquittal of his police assailants prompted massive riots in L.A. on a scale well beyond the protests inspired by Grant’s shooting. Grant’s supporters closely followed the trial of his killer, Johannes Mehserle, and were generally outraged at the leniency of his conviction and sentencing: two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, of which he served only 11 months before his June 2011 release on parole. Though Grant’s supporters wanted (and deserved) a different outcome, the fact that an officer was convicted of any criminal charge in an on-duty shooting was nearly unprecedented – a result of the political pressure and authoritative evidence the videos helped provide.
In the Agha-Soltan shooting, Internet broadcast of her death videos made Neda, as she is always called by supporters, an instant rallying point for the Green Movement within Iran and elicited an explosion of sympathetic messages and gestures from its international allies. Neda's name was yelled on Tehran streets during protests and from residences into the night. She became a fixture of protest signs and a centerpiece of shrines and memorials in Iran and across the globe, as well as a literal “icon” on Twitter. There, supportive users adopted thumbnail photos of her bleeding face as their avatars. Bloggers and posters on YouTube comment boards frequently expressed how deeply the videos shocked and saddened them, adding pleas to spread them and promises to “never forget.” One YouTube user seemed to convey the consensus reaction from the West in the simple statement,
Significantly, the comments on the Agha-Soltan videos contrast with those on Grant’s, which emphasize legal and moral debate more than a sharing of grief. Even as the Green Movement sputtered under government pressure in the months that followed, Agha-Soltan still commanded attention. Iranians risked their safety to mourn her publicly, PBS and HBO aired documentaries about her, she was named “Person of the Year” by The Times in London, and an Iranian factory was shut down for mass-producing Neda statuettes.
How death goes viral: the role of
So how did the Agha-Soltan videos from Iran generate such broad interest among the Western public while the Grant videos remained more nationally, and even regionally, bound? Part of the former set’s ability to go viral stems from its integration within the larger news story of Iran’s election protests and the political factors intertwined with its coverage. In the United States, where relations with Iran are generally hostile, there was a palpable eagerness to support the Green Movement among media outlets and citizens – some of whom framed the movement’s purposes in tandem with U.S. efforts to spread “freedom” and “democracy” in the Middle East. I also suspect that the videos achieved so much exposure because many Americans believed they could bear witness to Agha-Soltan’s brutal death with few feelings of culpability – unlike videos of suffering and death from Iraq or Afghanistan. Furthermore, the usual impetus to “do something” that accompanies activist videos – sometimes putting off viewers who would rather do nothing without guilt – were, in some analysts’ views, mitigated in this case. They feared that too much U.S. intervention in Iran would only strengthen the government’s claims that the unrest was a Western plot and not the true reflection of the Iranian people’s wishes. Alongside these political dimensions of the videos’ popularity, I argue that audiovisual elements played an equally crucial role. Specifically, the ubiquity and versatility of digital video enabled a representation of Agha-Soltan’s death that mirrors conventions from the West’s mainstream, commercial cinema.
These conventions seep into the raw footage, despite a chaotic recording situation that did not facilitate much aesthetic intentionality. Striking among them are the multiple camera angles, which audiences of Hollywood death scenes have long been treated to, but which have become newly practical for documentary in the digital age when more cameras are likely to be on scene. The difference between these angles in fiction film and in the Agha-Soltan videos is that the latter remain raw shots that we watch sequentially rather than simultaneously. It’s as if we had full access to three cameras’ coverage of a single scene in a fiction film, seeing shots that would later be condensed and intercut.
The most ironic convention that aligns the Agha-Soltan videos with mainstream fiction is shaky, handheld cinematography. Such cinematography was less a stylistic choice than a practical necessity for documentarians in the direct cinema and cinéma vérité period when it became a visual trademark of the form. It was a visual style largely prompted by a technological shift, as maneuverable 16mm cameras and synchronized sound equipment allowed for a more spontaneous documentation of events as they happened, without tripods and careful set-ups – a scenario now extended to non-professionals with cell phone cameras, like those who recorded Agha-Soltan’s death. But since its documentary heyday in the ‘60s, intentionally shaky camerawork has overrun fiction film and television, especially in the twenty-first century. Directors use it to overlay a gritty, documentary roughness onto fiction for a more “real,” more authentic feeling.
This stylistic adoption is so widespread in fiction that it weakens the link with documentary that the technique is meant to evoke. Where once watching a handheld shot in a fiction film called up associations with documentary, now, I argue, the shakiness of the Agha-Soltan footage calls up associations with fiction film. The unsteady frame that approaches her is very similar to “camera subjectivity” horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Cloverfield (2008), and is only a tad more extreme in its jolts than recent war films. Two separate scenes in Flags of Our Fathers (2006), for example, feature a shaky, handheld camera and on-screen soldiers approaching a wounded comrade from approximately the same angle as the Agha-Soltan footage. These lives slip away in front of the camera, like hers, amidst bleeding and suffering and despite medical intervention from desperate witnesses to the deaths.
The videos also provide clear close-ups of the streams of blood that pour from Agha-Soltan’s mouth and nose – blood flow so dramatic that it would be a challenge for an effects make-up artist to simulate convincingly. Synced to the pace of her escalating bleeding is a crescendo of shouts and wails from the gathering crowd, which audibly register the tragedy, providing the type of immersive soundtrack that makes death scenes more evocative. If we extend our comparison to casting, Agha-Soltan is a victim ideally suited to command sympathy from an international audience. Like Hollywood’s favored murder victims, she exudes the innocence associated with being young and a woman. Her feminine beauty allows for her objectification, too, in the risqué blend of sex and death these films trade in – a viewing mode evidenced by numerous subtly sexual and overtly lewd YouTube comments on her death videos.
Agha-Soltan’s Iranian identity also plays a major role, since image distributors and consumers in the West have long proven that they are comfortable watching the bodily destruction of the ethnic other. In particular, the scenario of Americans watching an Iranian woman die at the hands of her own government resonates with the U.S. media’s dominant discourse about the Islamic Republic in Iran: that women are the primary victims of its oppressions. More broadly, as Evelyn Azeeza Alsultany has argued, a trope of the Muslim woman victimized by her culture has emerged in post-9/11 U.S. media. While this figure does generate sympathy, in contrast to the figure of the Islamic terrorist, it has most often been deployed to reinforce the claim that America’s wars in the Middle East were invested in the “liberation” of Islamic women. Agha-Soltan’s death potentially functioned this way for some, affirming U.S. interventions in Iran’s neighboring nations as – perversely – feminist acts.
Multiple angles, dramatic blood flow, immersive audio, and the subject’s appearance – these audiovisual details make it easier to understand why the Agha-Soltan videos received such disproportionately massive attention from the international community amidst all the footage coming out of Iran that summer. Even other graphic videos of fatal violence failed to generate anywhere near the amount of exposure for the Green Movement that her death did. Addressing the ways in which mainstream, corporate media aesthetics drive exposure on YouTube, Juhasz quips,
Though their attention and intentions must have been focused elsewhere, the makers of the Agha-Soltan videos achieved a familiar and already-popular aesthetic form.
That Agha-Soltan’s death looks like a gritty Hollywood war movie is especially important in connecting with U.S. audiences – the dominant users of YouTube – not because they are callous and entertainment-oriented, but because Hollywood has been their primary guide to what death looks like for much of the past century. While previous generations had plenty of first-hand exposure at deathbeds, the twentieth century brought both lower death rates and a rapid medicalization of the dying process that replaced its visibility in the home with sequestering in the hospital. There it was kept mainly out of sight, soothing a society that no longer welcomed familiarity with the physical transition from life to death. Fictional, filmic representations partially assumed the role of exposing people to that process, but with an unsurprising preference for spectacle, favoring the most dynamic and dramatized types of death.
The same appetite for spectacle also dominates YouTube, despite the site’s high proportion of actuality footage. YouTube’s attention economy is “based on the slogan: pithy, precise, rousing calls to action, or consumption, or action as consumption,” and here the brief, spectacle-oriented video is king. Its dominance curtails documentarians’ options for displaying death’s duration, its frequent resistance to spectacular visibility, or its context. Sam Gregory, program director for the activist video organization WITNESS, notes the difficulties human rights videos face in attracting attention on YouTube because
Agha-Soltan’s recorded death has achieved viral status globally because it is “immediately powerful performance.” It embodies the temporally condensed spectacle of YouTube, plus documentary’s poignant stamp of authenticity – the alluring promise that one is seeing the taboo sight of “real” death unfolding before the camera.