While the dying Agha-Soltan’s face and body are displayed clearly in front of the cameras recording her, Grant’s remain small in the frame and are usually obscured.
Like President Kennedy before him, Grant receives his fatal bullet on camera, and in both cases – in contrast to the Agha-Soltan footage – we must squint and strain to make out what is happening.
Understanding the difficulty of actually seeing the crime these videos document, Bay Area news networks like KTVU annotated them to highlight the action.
Just before Mehserle shot Grant, the closest camera-bearing witness turned her lens away from the pair and toward another officer who was tackling this man elsewhere on the platform.
Annie’s final scene in Imitation of Life (1959) typifies the way in which mainstream, fiction films have shown the “moment of death” onscreen: her speech slows and trails off, her expression droops, and her eyes slip into a blank stare.
Agha-Soltan appears to make eye contact with the camera – to look right at the viewer – as she dies, an element of the videos that many YouTube users wrote about as affecting them powerfully.
Footage of Grant’s death does not offer the identification-breeding close-ups and eye contact that the Agha-Soltan footage does. This frame, from footage by Karina Vargas, is the clearest view in any of the videos of Grant’s face after he is shot.
More so than Agha-Soltan’s, Grant’s face became an extremely visible feature of demonstrations and of public space in Oakland in the wake of his death. The face that appears over and over again here works to humanize Grant in a way that the YouTube videos cannot, with their long shots and blocked lines of sight that hide Grant’s face.
A soldier serving in Iraq submits an “I am Neda” photo to the Tumblr blog of that title.
Agha-Soltan’s look at the camera is transformed into a Flash animation for The Airborne Toxic Event’s “Neda” music video, made to benefit Amnesty International.
Comparatively, the videos of Oscar Grant have, at best, the look of courtroom evidence, not of a dramatic death scene. Indeed, they were filmed as such by passengers who knew the evidentiary value of their footage. Though more people recorded Grant’s death than Agha-Soltan’s, the multiple angles offer less to choose from. Several use very similar vantage points, and none secure the close-ups that make the Agha-Soltan videos so striking. Those who recorded Grant’s death lacked the proximity and mobility of their Iranian counterparts, because the BART officers had confined them to the train cars. In the bystander videos, Grant himself becomes a small and obscured collection of pixels, reminiscent of (but even less visible than) Kennedy, who died in miniature and awash in 8mm film grain in Zapruder’s film. Bay Area news programs underscored the difficulty of seeing Grant’s fatal shooting within the videos by adding a familiar annotation when airing them: a bright circle around Grant and Mehserle that tells us where to look for the action.
This aspect of the Grant videos evokes the challenge that documentary death shares with genres and movements as varied as melodrama, pornography, and German expressionism: the necessity of externalizing internal states for the camera. Grant, unlike Agha-Soltan, is a victim whose body does not visibly register the internal damage it sustains. His dose of police brutality affectively fails to project its actual brutality in the videos. This failure of the visible is a particular problem because of the extraordinary expectations twenty-first century viewers (and juries) have for video evidence – brought on by the expanding camera coverage of public space and the technological fictions spread by television crime dramas. Investigators on shows like CSI and Law and Order often manage to obtain clear footage of a crime that helps them crack the case. Even if this footage is initially distant or blurry, they just push a few buttons to sharpen the image or zoom in on a detail – operations that are usually technologically impossible or financially impractical for actual investigations.
The limited proximity and mobility of Grant’s recorders aligns their footage more with the distant, fixed positions of surveillance cameras than with the omniscience and omnipotence of the camera in most fiction films. Agha-Soltan’s bystanders knew exactly where the action was and what the viewers would want to see, like Hollywood cinematographers. The bystanders recording Grant, however, sometimes lack that awareness because the Oakland shooting played out in a more chaotic way than the one in Tehran. Karina Vargas, for example, disobeys police orders and exits the train to record the arrest better. But as she approaches Grant and Mehserle, she suddenly pans left to catch a young man being tackled right next to her. As she does, Mehserle shoots Grant off-screen and Vargas misses the scene’s most important feature. Considering the challenges of her recording task, YouTube viewers are wildly unsympathetic to Vargas. Her turbulent camerawork and inability to enframe the action demonstrate what Juhasz calls the “bad video” aesthetic on YouTube, derided by users for its failure to achieve
A comment from Pirate48153 typifies the harsh, misogynistic feedback Vargas received:
As this outrage implies, details in the Grant videos like Vargas’ ill-timed pan disrupt the fantasy of ocular power that mainstream fiction and the Agha-Soltan videos provide, reading as frustrating moments when the contingencies of documentary interfere with the desire for “maximum visibility.”
The audio track is one element that does push the Grant videos’ impact beyond that of automated surveillance footage. In concert with the handheld camerawork, which grounds the footage in human subjectivity, the increasingly clamorous passengers give a sense of immersion that partly compensates for the lack of visual detail. Almost never localized to visible individuals, the comments from onlookers gradually blend together as the coherent, collective will of the 2:00 AM crowd. The camera itself, and thus our viewing position, is sonically and symbolically located as a part of this crowd: its shouts are loud and close, while those of the officers sound distant. The videos begin with snippets of conversation unrelated to the still-tame encounter between passengers and police – reminders of the event’s apparent banality when it began – like an off-screen passenger saying into his cell phone,
When the BART police push Grant to the ground, though, the crowd’s attention becomes audibly fixated. Their remarks grow in volume, frequency, and intensity including:
Although these words suggest a viewing position allied with Grant rather than the officers, they also reinforce the subtle framing of the footage as most notable for the questions of legality and ethics it raises, not for its tragic loss of life. This dynamic is understandable considering that most of the Grant footage precedes his shooting, while the Agha-Soltan footage follows hers. Also, witnesses reported that many passengers assumed Grant had been tased or otherwise failed to realize he had been fatally shot with a pistol. The protesters surrounding Agha-Soltan when she is felled by a bullet also provide a cacophony of voices, but in a more overtly emotional way. They tell her not to be scared, plead for her to stay with them, or simply scream. For the majority of Western viewers who do not speak Farsi, the audible emotion of the soundtrack becomes even more prominent in the absence of linguistic comprehension.
“I never thought the world could be so small”: identifying with the dying
In the details above, a sense begins to emerge of how greatly audiovisual elements shape the emotional reactions and political actions that individual deaths generate in an era when they are recorded and displayed more and more frequently. What’s at stake in that shaping process is the extent to which lives are “grievable,” as Judith Butler describes. In Precarious Life, Butler writes about the way that certain types of death have been ignored or suppressed in public discourse, such as the deaths of gay men during the AIDS crisis, or the victims of U.S. bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan. While she draws the borders of grievability based on identity and causes of death, the Grant and Agha-Soltan videos demonstrate that aesthetics, too, can contribute powerfully to Butler’s uneasy truth that some lives are “so easily humanized” and others are not.
While shot distance and audio play key roles in the relative humanization of the dying Grant and Agha-Soltan, I assert that the primary distinction here is the inclusion of Agha-Soltan’s face, in close-up. Intimate facial close-ups are a rarity in documentary death, but a fixture of death in fiction film – a tool for forging sympathy and identification between audience and character. Facial close-ups like Agha-Soltan’s seem also to promise the clearest window on the mystical “moment of death” that mainstream, commercial cinema obsessively displays. The archetypal shot is a close-up of the dying character as her or his expression slackens and eyes close or slip into a blank stare. YouTube viewers may perceive that process unfolding in the first Agha-Soltan video, as her eyes seem to meet the camera’s stare and then roll back in a loss of consciousness. As evidenced by user comments, the apparent visibility of this dying process provide an emotional charge beyond the power of documentary’s more common images of corpses. As Sobchack, quoted above, reminds us: when the cameras roll on the dying rather than the dead, identification is more likely.
The Agha-Soltan videos even offer the illusion of eye contact – a feature of documentary images prized by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida. Lamenting his boredom with a recent catastrophe, he writes:
Though Barthes then denies its power to fiction film, a look “straight in the eye” is within the repertoire of documentary, and Agha-Soltan’s death provides a striking instance. Many posters to YouTube’s comment boards wrote about this detail and the haunting experience of Agha-Soltan’s look as she dies.
Between Oscar Grant and the cameras that record his death, there is no eye contact, nor even many clear shots of his face. The videos portray a victim who is decidedly not “faced,” who often becomes a flat representative of a demographic group (“young black men”) – hence the extreme ubiquity of Grant’s face in the protests, used by supporters to individuate and humanize him. Renderings of his face – uniformly based on one smiling photograph of him that local papers ran in the case’s aftermath – appeared as posters, at public memorials, on protest signs, on t-shirts, as masks worn by demonstrators, and even as large-scale murals.
In Oakland, there was a localized outpouring of grief for Grant, but if public response to the Grant and Agha-Soltan videos generally frames the latter’s death as more widely, globally “grievable,” it is also because a broad swath of viewers were able to identify with Agha-Soltan as they watched her breathe her last breaths. The political actions that arose from both deaths bear this out in their different deployments of “I am Neda” and “I am Oscar Grant” declarations. “I am _____” is a somewhat common template for activists whose actions center on an individual. It is also a template that deserves closer examination for its bold (and usually uncritical) declaration of not just support for that individual but direct identification with her or him.
Grant supporters in Oakland shouted this slogan at marches, spray-painted it around the city, and inscribed it on protest signs. The individuals declaring this shared identity were largely (though not exclusively) those who indeed shared with Grant all or most of the identity attributes that were seen as crucial to his death: being a person of color, male, young. San Francisco filmmaker Kevin Epps, for example, explained at a protest,
The “I am Oscar Grant” declarations demonstrate one way in which a shared vulnerability to violence can be, as Butler claims, a unifying force – a force she posits as crucial in this post-9/11 world. She writes,
In its culturally specific deployment among young African American men, “I am Oscar Grant” evokes that uneven allocation of vulnerability.
The parallel “I am Neda” declarations seem to follow Butler’s principle, too, but ultimately elide her clarification that vulnerability is “allocated differently across the globe.” Unlike the mainly Bay Area based “I am Oscar Grant” statements, which remained situated in a specific social and political context, annunciations of “I am Neda” again achieved global reach. In addition to the phrase’s appearance in international protests, it was also used to generate personal photos and messages online in solidarity with Agha-Soltan. Amnesty International launched one such campaign called “Neda Speaks,” for which 1,901 users sent in photos.
The site’s explanation of the campaign grounds its use of the phrase in the local and culturally specific, explaining,
What is not explained is why that powerful phrase should be exported out of its local and specific context – why the declaration of identification “I am Neda” is the best way to make “this fundamental stand for human rights.” Nevertheless, 1,798 people of diverse ages, genders, ethnicities, and nationalities have posted pictures of themselves with “I am Neda” scrawled on pieces of paper they hold or on visible body parts or clothing. As earnest and well-meaning as these individuals seem, many of them evoke Jodi Dean’s disappointed digital-age principle,
While African American Bay Area resident Kevin Epps can say “I am Oscar Grant” because “[Grant] could have been me,” there is little credibility in the idea that many of the “I am Neda” declarers would feel like “Neda could have been me.” These supporters are able to identify with the woman dying so dramatically in intimate close-up and looking them “straight in the eye,” but their sharing of human vulnerability lacks nuance.
Their good intentions are dampened by the missing acknowledgment that vulnerability is “allocated differently across the globe” – that a white teenage boy from Connecticut, for example, will very likely avoid being shot by his government or dying by any violent means. One example that is both moving and fraught comes from another, smaller-scale “I am Neda” photo project started by a Tumblr user who “wanted to make a point that Neda became the face of the uprising because we could all see ourselves in her.”
Responding to that user’s call for photos of people wearing homemade “I am Neda” apparel, a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq posted a photo of himself in full military gear, holding open his unbuttoned camouflage shirt to reveal those words, inscribed in marker on his t-shirt. However earnestly and emotionally this soldier writes about the Agha-Soltan death in his accompanying text, there remains a certain incongruity between the words on his shirt and his visibly signified participation in the U.S. war in neighboring Iraq – a lingering gap between the capacity to sympathize and the right to claim a shared identity. Perhaps the U.S. song “Neda” – recorded by the band The Airborne Toxic Event for Amnesty International’s “Neda Speaks” campaign – best express the power and naiveté embodied in “I am Neda.” Collapsing space in a familiar cliché and eschewing the spirit of Butler’s assertion that vulnerability is “allocated differently across the globe,” the song’s repeating chorus about how Agha-Soltan’s death affects the songwriter ends with the deliberately pronounced words, “I never thought the world could be so small.”