Ex-marine Brian Steidle trades his gun for a camera, photographing in Darfur to document genocide in the region (The Devil Came on Horseback, 2007).
Steidle brings binders full of photographs back to the U.S., including many gruesome images of corpses.
Setting out to tour the country with his images, Steidle is convinced that once Americans see them, the U.S. will send troops to the region.
But finishing the press circuit without tangible results, he learns a hard lesson about the depleted power of the corpse photograph in the twenty-first century United States.
Documentary glimpses of the “moment of death” – the dying rather than the dead – often have greater political impact than corpse photographs like Steidle’s (Eddie Adams, Saigon Execution, 1968).
YouTube tries to identify and remove most footage of actual violence or death by relying on a system of user “flagging,” but makes exceptions that are outlined in the site’s Community Guidelines.
Oscar Grant (left) sits in custody on the train platform moments before officer Johannes Mehserle shoots and kills him.
A frame from Margarita Carazo’s video that shows Tommy Cross Jr. in the foreground, also recording, emphasizes the density of cameras trained on Grant as he died.
There is an axiom that threads through the history of documentary media, a belief each new generation of image-makers reaffirms. To discard or doubt it, perhaps, would shake the form’s foundations too dramatically. The belief is in the ability to decrease war and violence through the documentary representation of war and violence – that if a photograph, say, can perfectly communicate “the horrors of war,” then its viewers will come to oppose war and promote peace.
In the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback (2007), an ex-marine turned military observer, Brian Steidle, carries that belief with him as he journeys to the Darfur region of Sudan in 2004. Unable to capture the brutal Janjaweed militia’s attacks on villages as they happen, Steidle documents the corpses with the razor-sharp visuals digital photography provides. He shows young and old bodies felled by gunshot, beating, burning alive, and so on – all in painful detail. Deliberating about what to do with his images, he expresses a confidence that,
Once the horrors of war he records have emotionally worn him down, Steidle returns to the United States, allows his photos to be published in the New York Times, does interviews with major news channels, and goes on the road to present on the crisis in Darfur. But the images he spreads do not make the impact that Steidle knew they would; as he sees it, they fail to inspire tangible action on behalf of Darfur. Instead, many of their viewers appear to absorb only Sontag’s “bemused awareness . . . that terrible things happen.” The documentary thus draws to a downbeat conclusion as Steidle arrives at a similar insight:
The credits roll soon after his statement and nudge the viewer toward action with a web URL and the message:
Considering the way The Devil Came on Horseback has documented the dissolution of Steidle’s own faith in this sentiment, the earnest words scrolling by on screen convey an unintended irony.
Steidle’s assumptions about his pictures – and the “horrors of war” axiom they exemplify – overlook the effect that a century and a half of graphic war photos and footage have had on the U.S. public. Because the period of history spanned by camera technology is so crowded with atrocities, corpses and their documentary traces have become almost clichéd signifiers of the terrible things that happen in the world. Their effectiveness in centuries past – perpetrator photographs appropriated for anti-lynching pamphlets, concentration camp images that evidenced genocide by the Nazis – has lost potency in the twenty-first. Thus, while Steidle’s pictures are certainly gruesome, they are ultimately too familiar in their subjects and aesthetics to make the impact he wants. A corpse photograph, like Steidle’s, can feel like an image made too late — a still representation of a still object that can only gesture toward the absent last moments of the person who once inhabited it. As Vivian Sobchack writes, in these images,
Indeed, the most legendary entries in the annals of politically useful death images are not of corpses. The photo and film footage of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing handcuffed prisoner Nguyen Van Lém in 1968 Saigon instead depict the enigmatic transition from living person to dead body. Eddie Adams’ iconic photo of this event, Saigon Execution, offers a long, hard stare at what appears to be the “moment of death” itself in the contortions of Lém’s face as he is shot, point-blank, in the head. The image has a popular reputation as having caused a major turning point in the Vietnam War – shifting public opinion into opposition to U.S. involvement. Despite evidence from historians that media coverage followed rather than precipitated this change in attitudes, the legend that Adams’ picture played a large role in ending the war – that this one image of a life ending truly made “a difference” – persists.
In their use by activists, images of actual death best satisfies the challenging questions that haunt their very existence: Why should we make and look at them? What right have we to do so? In this article, I examine the activist use of documentary death in conjunction with digital media. I consider shifts in the production and distribution of such material, as well as longtime characteristics of politically effective documentary death that remain constant (and, indeed, become more apparent) in the digital age.
On the production side, cell phone cameras represent a massive technological shift not so much in kind but in scale. These easy-to-operate digital recording devices travel in the pockets and purses of billions, vastly increasing the likelihood that a death in public will happen in a camera’s vicinity. Distribution changes have been equally dramatic, as the Internet allows these cell phone users to circulate what they capture easily and at no cost. Some of their videos will go viral, with all the rapid and unfettered movement that word implies. Or, if one prefers, they will become “spreadable media” – a phrase Henry Jenkins uses to counter the term viral’s connotations of autonomous proliferation in an unchanged form.
If activist videos of death are “spreadable,” then YouTube, the Internet’s most popular worldwide destination for streaming video, is the primary place where people spread them. The site, launched in 2005, quickly become a hub for participatory culture and the notion of interactivity so central to new media theory and Web 2.0. In terms of activist videos, and especially for activist videos of death, the notion of participation is especially charged. Studying these videos on YouTube reveals the extent to which witnessing in that space can facilitate doing, but also the very real limitations of actions emerging in that scenario. Jodi Dean notes how the Internet seems to promise that we can witness and then take action immediately through interactive commenting, reposting, petition circulating, and so on. But, Dean writes, sites like YouTube make us surprisingly passive:
Further, despite wide accessibility that welcomes non-professional media makers and provides new ways to consume, too, YouTube is hardly a digital utopia – even as a space for just witnessing. The site presents raw video without the context often necessary to understand what is being depicted, and simultaneously creates another context that feels awkward and insensitive: that of seeing somber activist videos posted alongside clips of skateboard stunts and pets being tickled. In her innovative video-book Learning from YouTube, Alexandra Juhasz puts it bluntly:
Activists who wish to spread death videos on YouTube also face a challenge in the site’s “Community Guidelines,” which limit graphic content. One guideline reads,
But YouTube sets out to judge “shock” clips by (somewhat) specific criteria rather than excluding all such content – a judgment that takes place when users flag a video as inappropriate and YouTube employees then decide whether to remove it or add an age restriction. The expanded guidelines elaborate on these criteria:
Here, YouTube adopts the spirit of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s definition of obscenity, offered during United States v. Roth in 1957: that which is “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The site avoids harboring “death porn” by requiring some intention (however their employees see fit to determine it) for the material beyond shock, sensationalism, or disrespect, and by banning “unrelated and gruesome clips . . . [strung] together.” Statements about the role of context on the site are especially interesting here. YouTube suggests that graphic material “should be balanced with additional context and information,” seeming to recognize the tendency of its own format (favoring short, user-uploaded videos) to omit adequate context. As activist videos of death on YouTube illustrate, the malleability of these guidelines and their dependence on human judgment allow the site to distribute death videos in many circumstances – when YouTube administrators decide they are educational, or, indeed, when they could “make a difference” in a cause deemed worthy.
Relatively early in the histories of cell phone footage and of YouTube, two sets of death videos that were fully integrated into activist causes circulated heavily on the site – never removed by administrators despite activists’ fears that they would be. They depict the 2009 killings of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California and Neda Agha-Soltan in Tehran. Their comparison reveals the importance of analyzing the content of individual clips when considering death documentary rather than lumping all such recordings together in a sweeping judgment about their ethics.
As little as we generally think about aesthetics in raw video shot by non-professionals on cell phones, I want to highlight their importance in both sets of videos. Through them, I argue that an audiovisual resemblance to the vision of death presented by mainstream, commercial cinema is most likely to generate audience sympathy and media attention via YouTube (ironically, since the site achieved its initial popularity by offering user-generated alternatives to that mode). Further, I argue that the tendency of most streaming video to strip away an event’s context greatly shapes the ways viewers understand the depicted deaths – but not always in a decidedly negative sense, as some have claimed.
“The whole world is watching”...on YouTube: activist videos of death
The videos of Oscar Grant III show the death of this 22-year-old African American father at the hands of transit police in Oakland, California. In the first few hours of 2009, Grant was returning from New Year’s Eve celebrations when BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police stopped his train at Oakland’s Fruitvale station. Responding to reports of a fight that allegedly included Grant, four officers detained him and his friends on the platform as a train full of passengers watched the scene – and in some cases recorded it.
After officers Johannes Mehserle and Tony Pirone pushed Grant facedown on the ground and attempted to handcuff him, Mehserle drew his gun and shot Grant fatally in the back. Mehserle later claimed that he thought Grant might be reaching for a weapon and had mistaken his own gun for his Taser in his effort to subdue Grant. In fact, no one in Grant’s party was armed.
Footage has reached the public from six cameras that captured parts of this event; some of the videos aired on the local news and on YouTube within days of the shooting, and others emerged during Mehserle’s criminal trial. The mounted security camera at Fruitvale station was directed at the tracks and outer edge of the platform, recording only the train’s arrival and departure, its passengers watching the arrest, and peripheral movements from officers.
In a figurative passing of the torch from one surveillance technology to another, handheld digital cameras and cell phone cameras vastly outperformed this mounted security camera in documenting Grant’s death, reinforcing a sense of the latter as yesterday’s model of the Panopticon. Five portable cameras recorded the arrest from different angles, and three of those had Grant in frame when Mehserle fired his fatal shot. The density of cameras watching the police on that night registers in Margarita Carazo’s footage, in which Tommy Cross, Jr.’s camera, also recording, hovers at the corner of the frame, displaying a miniaturized duplicate on its LCD screen of the arrest we are watching. None of these witnesses, however, were able to get very close to the action, and the three that did enframe the shooting could present only an obscured view – Pirone, pushing Grant down and kneeling on his neck, blocks the line of sight.