2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Streaming death: the politics of dying on YouTube
by Jennifer Malkowski
“Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” – Susan Sontag [open endnotes in new window]
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,
“If these photos were released to the public, there would be troops in here in a matter of days.”
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:
“I definitely look at the world differently now. I knew that bad things happened; I didn’t know that people would stand by and allow them to happen. I honestly thought as I wrote an email home that if the people of America could see what I’ve seen there would be troops here in one week . . . [T]hat’s not true at all. They’ve seen it now and we’ve still done nothing.”
The credits roll soon after his statement and nudge the viewer toward action with a web URL and the message:
“There is a growing movement to end the crisis in Darfur. You can make a difference.”
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,
“Our sympathy for the subject who once was is undermined by our alienation from the object that is.”
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:
“Discussion, far from displaced, has itself become a barrier against acts as action is perpetually postponed . . . It’s easier to set up a new blog than it is to undertake the ground-level organizational work of building alternatives. It’s also difficult to think through the ways our practices and activities are producing new subjectivities, subjectivities that may well be more accustomed to quick satisfaction and bits of enjoyment than to planning, discipline, sacrifice, and delay.”
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:
“[YouTube is] a context that is not ideal for activism, analysis, or community.”
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,
“YouTube is not a shock site. Don't post gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies or similar things intended to shock or disgust” [my emphasis].
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:
“If a video is particularly graphic or disturbing, it should be balanced with additional context and information. For instance, including a clip from a slaughter house in a video on factory farming may be appropriate. However, stringing together unrelated and gruesome clips of animals being slaughtered in a video may be considered gratuitous if its purpose is to shock rather than illustrate.”
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.
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.
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. Her 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,
“This is the most terrible thing I have seen in all my sheltered and quiet life.”
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 aesthetics in YouTube’s “attention economy”
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,
“Like high school cheerleaders, the popular on YouTube do what we already like, in ways we already know.”
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
“much human rights material is not immediately powerful performance, and may not be most effectively or honestly presented in that mode.”
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.
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
“the conventional norms of quality, particularly in relation to form (lighting, framing, costume, make-up, editing, sound, recording and mixing, performance, etc.).”
A comment from Pirate48153 typifies the harsh, misogynistic feedback Vargas received:
“Bitch next time learn how to 2 fukin record b4 u go postin shit up on youtube u stupid hoe.”
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,
“Hey, we’re in Fruitvale right now. Fruitvale, with a fruit! Where you guys at?”
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:
“Trying to make myself write some sort of commentary on the latest ‘emergency’ reportage, I tear up my notes as soon as I write them. What – nothing to say about death, suicide, wounds, accidents? No, nothing to say about these photographs in which I see surgeons’ gowns, bodies lying on the ground, broken glass, etc. Oh, if only there were a look, a subject’s look, if only someone in the photograph were looking at me! For the Photograph has this power . . . of looking me straight in the eye."
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,
“I’m angry because [Grant] could have been me . . . We’re guilty until proven innocent.”
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,
“From where might a principle emerge by which we vow to protect others from the kinds of violence we have suffered, if not from an apprehension of a common human vulnerability? I do not mean to deny that vulnerability is differentiated, that it is allocated differently across the globe.”
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,
“People in Iran yell ‘I am Neda’ into the street after lights out as a sign of defiance since the government has made it illegal to mourn for her. We want you to join us in support of this fundamental stand for human rights by uploading a photo of yourself holding a sign that says ‘I am Neda.’”
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,
“React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”
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.”
The promise and peril of context
The qualities of the Agha-Soltan videos that enable this broad, even strained, “I am Neda” identification – their universalizing communication of suffering and death, encapsulated in short, dramatic, and aesthetically familiar clips – are the same qualities that exclude cultural specificity. While useful for drawing attention to an activist cause, such videos reduce complex events to spectacle and strip away cultural and political context – a characteristic of YouTube that worries scholars and activists. This problem is especially prevalent in raw footage distributed online, where it can be re- or de-contextualized when taken from its original site and embedded elsewhere, and where it is often accompanied by uninformed and even misleading user comments. As described above, a lack of context troubles YouTube’s administrators, as well, forming one of the criteria under which they may remove graphic videos from the site. Even as the Agha-Soltan videos reveal conditions in Iran during the protests, they also exclude aspects of Iranian culture and history enmeshed with this murder. Most importantly, the raw footage itself cannot explain the context of martyrdom’s resonance for Islam and for Iran.
Distinct from looser applications in the West, martyrdom in Islam is more codified, and the title can be officially bestowed or denied by legal and religious authorities. At the core, an Islamic martyr, or shaheed, is one whose death creates a powerful testimony to his or her faith. Martyrdom has been a truly formative concept for Iran, specifically, because its population is predominantly Shi’ite – a sect of Islam for which the martyr Hussein is a key figure – and because the 1980s Iran-Iraq War forged countless martyrs who were revered by Khomeini and the government. The concept and history of Islamic martyrdom in Iran provided a frame through which many there discussed or interpreted Agha-Soltan’s death – a set of common cultural reference points familiar to even the secular elements of the Green Movement, whose conception of her martyrdom would not be a religious one.
Understanding the danger that Agha-Soltan’s martyrdom could (and did) fuel the Green Movement, the government launched a long and multifaceted campaign to either co-opt or defuse its power, trying everything from claiming her as a martyr for the state to alleging that she was alive and living in Greece. Accommodating both the complex narrative conventions of Islamic martyrdom in Iran and a simpler “innocent victim” story in the West, the Agha-Soltan videos again demonstrate their global appeal. Her Iranian family and supporters integrated the tropes of Islamic martyrdom into descriptions of her death: pure intentions, fearlessness, a premonition of her death, and a holy corpse that remains beautiful. In Agha-Soltan’s look at the camera, some even saw a variant of a final exhortation – an Islamic martyr’s effort to impart truth to the living with her or his final words.
These qualities were generally ignored in the Western media’s coverage of Agha-Soltan, and in some cases the values associated with Islamic martyrdom were inadvertently undermined. One such value crucial to the function of martyrdom’s recording is that graphic representations of martyrs’ deaths cannot be lumped in with the so-called “gratuitous” violence in Western media that inspires so much hand wringing. Numerous comments online attacked the Agha-Soltan videos as insensitive and violent, but as historian David Cook notes in Martyrdom in Islam,
“In the end martyrdom is about blood and suffering.”
Blood, suffering, and death are essential components of martyrdom and its representation – components that give the act such emotional and persuasive power. The Green Movement and its worldwide supporters understood that immediately, making images of Agha-Soltan’s bloodied face a ubiquitous feature of their protests. Yet these components were suppressed in initial airings of the videos on major U.S. news networks. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC played only a small portion of one video, cutting it just before Agha-Soltan began to bleed from her mouth and nose, and accompanied even this snippet with profuse warnings and justifications. CNN and Fox News both blurred out her whole face – a common practice in U.S. television journalism intended to show respect for the victim and family. These channels reversed the digital annotation KTVU put on the Oscar Grant videos, adding a circle that denies access to one portion of the frame rather than a circle that calls attention to one. In doing so, they erased Agha-Soltan’s identity, her bleeding and suffering, her charged look at the camera, and the emotional power of the video in general. To suppress Agha-Soltan’s identity and the violence of her death in this manner is to neutralize a martyr’s most powerful means of bearing witness, converting non-believers, bolstering the faithful, and honoring the dead.
In these examples of how news networks integrated the Agha-Soltan videos, an uncomfortable insight becomes apparent: calls for simply more context and attacks on YouTube’s lack of context fail to recognize the abuses contextualization can inflict upon footage. Here, the bare encounter with raw footage in the supposedly non-contextualized space of YouTube can provide a clearer and more illuminating engagement with recorded death. I argue that the Grant footage presents another instance of the dual promises and perils of context. Part of the reason that his shooting quickly inspired such passionate protest in Oakland was that the widely-accessible videos of his death seemed to be plainly legible, with no further context required. That is, an African American man lying face down with his hands behind his back and posing no threat to anyone is shot at close range by a white officer. As police procedure consultant Mark Harrison elegantly put it,
"If they were kids from [the wealthy suburb] Orinda being rowdy on the way home from a Raiders game, I don't think it would have gone down the same way."
In the videos was visible evidence of extreme white-on-black police brutality, the sort that many Oakland residents have felt besieged by for decades.
As the saga of Mehserle’s criminal case got underway, however, his supporters and the press heaped on additional context, details YouTube did not offer that – these sources implied – were necessary to interpreting the videos correctly. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle printed diagrams of how officers’ Taser holsters attach to their belts, the process for changing the holster’s configuration, its position on Mehserle’s belt, and how that position could have confused him about whether he was pulling his gun or his Taser. Most disturbingly, the news media opposed Mehserle’s squeaky clean record as a BART officer to Grant’s five prior arrests, attempting to justify Mehserle’s readiness to use force, even though he was not aware of Grant’s record during the arrest. But the aggressive inclusion of these facts in the news did send a different message loud and clear, one already legible in the way that Grant died: that this young, African American man with a police record was not living a “grievable life” by U.S. cultural standards. By contrast, every piece of personal information about Agha-Soltan that the media promoted seemed to bolster her grievability in the West: her university education, close ties with her family and fiancé, love of travel outside Iran, ambition to be a singer, and oft-asserted love of freedom rather than politics (as if dying in protest of a fraudulent election could somehow make sense as an apolitical act).
Here we might recall a parallel process of dubious contextualization that occurred in the Rodney King case – the case with which Grant’s is so often associated. Bystander George Holliday’s camcorder footage of King’s beating became key evidence in the trial of LAPD officers. Unable to ignore this seemingly damning video, the defense instead presented it to the court in a way that “distorted and dehistoricized” the beating, as Elizabeth Alexander argues:
“The lawyers . . . slowed down the famous videotape so that it no longer existed in ‘real time’ but rather in a slow dance of stylized movement that could as easily be read as self-defense or as a threat. The slowed-down tape recorded neither the sound of falling blows nor the screams from King and the witnesses.”
Such a presentation of Holliday’s video works toward several advantageous effects for the officers: anesthetizing jurors to the shock of the beating by playing the footage many times, dulling its horror by eliminating the audio, and creating time within the short video for lawyers to expansively narrate it. In doing so, they added their own favored context, arguing for why the situation justified each blow or kick King suffered on-screen. The videos of Grant’s death played many times in Mehserle’s trial. They sometimes provided visible evidence for the prosecution to counter inaccurate witness testimonies, but – like the King videos – were also subjected to a series of slow motion and freeze frame replays narrated by experts testifying for the defense. In this case, too, the supposedly inadequate context of YouTube becomes preferable to the videos’ more contextualized displays in court.
Of course, warnings from activists and academics about a lack of context on YouTube must also contend with the form of context YouTube videos do, in every case, provide: the comments of viewers. In the case of the Grant videos, YouTube comments offered a context far more important to understanding Grant’s death than the details of Mehserle’s Taser holster. The comments contain elaborate, brutal, and persistent articulations of racism against African Americans, a context too raw and ugly to be fully printed in the paper or aired on the local news, but that YouTube can display. Overtly racist comments filled with derogatory terms and offensive opinions appear often, from many users, on many different postings of the Grant videos. Their presence and quantity provide an important reminder about one aspect of activism on YouTube: that high view counts measure only visibility, not political alignment. The x-million viewers a video attracts do not translate to x-million supporters of its apparent cause.
On a broader level, the racist comments illustrate the way in which YouTube and social media sites are havens for hatred at the same time that they are progressive tools, muddying the image of the Internet as a democratizing, utopic force. As Jason Sperb notes,
“The Internet may be the most efficient textual universe for any scholar wishing to prove that racism is alive and well today, and much more rampant than many will admit.”
Though not the site’s intention, YouTube creates a public forum where racists can connect, with videos that depict graphic violence against people of color becoming nodal points for such gathering. They solidify shared attitudes in a manner similar to the lynching photographs of a previous generation that circulated among racist whites in the United States. Although racist comments on the Grant videos were usually decried by many other viewers posting on the boards, they expose a cultural context for his shooting that does not match the claims about post-racial America elicited by Barack Obama’s inauguration in the very month that Grant was killed, January 2009.
Conclusion: “to rescue some type of meaning”
When Brian Steidle returned from Darfur to the U.S. with his binders full of corpse photographs in The Devil Came on Horseback, he naively hoped those photographs would make an immediate, concrete, and large-scale impact, leading to U.S. military intervention in Darfur. Earlier in the film, he had longed for an act of transformation: for the camera through which he watched trucks of Janjaweed killers to become a weapon’s scope, for what he saw as passive observation to become active intervention. A related act of transformation underlies his fantasy about the photographs, as the dead bodies he preserves in page after page of documentation promise to summon troops who will rise up in their stead and save those who can still be saved. Those troops do not come, but Steidle’s disappointment ignores the smaller-scale responses his efforts must have generated: a few hundred or thousand minds changed about the situation in Darfur, donations to aid groups and human rights organizations, more citizens drawn to rallies and protests on the issues, and maybe even a politician or two inspired to advocate for Darfur.
In the activist use of documentary death, we hope – as Steidle does – to see clear victories, but are inevitably left with partial successes that require too many qualifiers. Agha-Soltan’s recorded martyrdom empowered Green Movement protesters in Iran and shed light on their plight for global audiences, but it did not lead to a new election or a government overthrow. Successes feel even more scant in relation to the Grant videos: Mehserle was convicted, but on a light charge with a short sentence. Further, the narrow media focus on his trial and his individual culpability drew attention away from the structural inequities of law enforcement in the United States and the flawed policies and attitudes in the BART police force that precipitated this tragedy.
In fact, rather than take a hard look at their own tendencies toward racial profiling or their use of force guidelines, several Bay Area law enforcement agencies considered other policy changes in the wake of Grant’s shooting that indicated they had learned a disappointing lesson from the case: get control of the documentary images. Some in the region introduced over-the-ear or chest-mounted cameras to record point-of-view shots of what the officers wearing them see. Though such a system could help make officers accountable in their use of force, that is not the tone with which the police are framing it. San Jose’s Sgt. Ronnie Lopez, for example, explains:
"We live in a YouTube society where people have the ability to record us. We firmly believe officers do the right things for the right reasons, and this is a way to show our side" [my emphasis].
In this aftermath, it is painfully clear that the technological wonders of new media still have very limited power against systematic racism, that their intervention can only go so far in securing justice for lives that are still not grievable in our country.
In addition to qualifying the successes of the Grant and Agha-Soltan videos, I must also note that for the great majority of individuals shown dying on YouTube, no organized political response will emerge to “do something” about their deaths. No users will even make the easy promise to “never forget.” These videos will fall into “the vast sea of little-seen YouTube videos” that Juhasz calls NicheTube. When I stumble upon one of those seldom-viewed deaths on YouTube, I recall David Cook’s powerful insight,
“Ultimately, martyrdom is an attempt to rescue some type of meaning and dignity from death.”
A similar attempt is made by those who produced and circulated the Neda Agha-Soltan and Oscar Grant videos, and by most documentary representations of death, whether of martyrs or not. The act of watching an actual death cries out for justification, some reassurance that it has not merely provided a momentary diversion – just another YouTube offering viewed in between music videos and cute kittens. We want these images to communicate something clear and vital, to effect some change in ourselves and in our world. The Grant and Agha-Soltan videos did so more than most. But they – like all documentary records of lives ending in front of cameras – remain difficult to absorb, perched precariously at the edge of representation.
2. Vivian Sobchack, “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 237.
3. Daniel C. Hallin, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 110.
4. Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 110, 125.
5. Alexandra Juhasz, Learning from YouTube (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011),
6. “Community Guidelines,” YouTube, accessed March 19, 2011,
8. “Iran, Tehran: wounded girl dying in front of camera, Her name was Neda,” YouTube video, 0:40, posted by “FEELTHELIGHT,” June 20, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbdEf0QRsLM;
“Shot By Basij [WARNING GRUESOME],” YouTube video, 0:15, posted by “b0wl0fud0n,” June 20, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmi-LePl894
11. André Bazin, “Death Every Afternoon,” in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies, trans. Mark A. Cohen (Durham: Duke University Press, 1958/2003), 27-31.
12. See, for example, Scott Shane, “Spotlight Again Falls on Web Tools and Change,” The New York Times, January 29, 2011,
13. David R. Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 70.
14. Philip Seib, “New Media and Prospects for Democratization,” in New Media and the New Middle East, ed. Philip Seib (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 4.
15. These statistics accompany the following videos, and are consistent with those of other Grant and Agha-Sotltan videos: “POLICE SHOOTING AT BART STATION – OSCAR GRANT,” YouTube video, 3:28, from an episode of KTVU Morning News televised by KTVU on January 5, 2009, posted by “TheDirtyNews,” January 5, 2009,
“Neda Agha Soltan, killed 20.06.2009, Presidential Election Protest, Tehran, IRAN,” YouTube video, 2:23, posted by “AliJahanii,” June 22, 2009.
16. The New York Times, for example, did not report on the Grant shooting until more than a week after it occurred, when large protests began in Oakland.
17. Statistics on criminal charges brought against officers demonstrate how unusual Mehserle’s case was. See Demian Bulwa, “Ex-BART Cop Accused of Murder in Rare Group,” The San Francisco Chronicle, February 15, 2009,
18. Comment from Sepirothkai [“Iran, Tehran: wounded girl”].
19. PBS aired A Death in Tehran as part of its Frontline series in November 2009 and HBO aired For Neda in June 2010; William Yong, “Iran Halts Production of ‘Neda’ Figures,” The New York Times, June 9, 2010,
20. The 1968 coverage of Lém’s execution is a notable pre-digital precursor. It was captured on film by NBC cameraman Vo Suu and as a photograph by Eddie Adams. For more on Hollywood’s presentation of death from multiple angles, see Amy Rust, “‘Passionate Detachment’: Technologies of Vision and Violence in American Cinema, 1967-1974” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2010), 22-42.
21. See John Taylor, “Foreign Bodies,” Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe, and War (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 129-156.
22. Evelyn Azeeza Alsultany, Contribution to the Roundtable “Keyword Searches: 9/11 Plus Ten” (presented at the annual meeting for the American Studies Association, Baltimore, MD, October 20-23, 2011). I am also grateful to Nazanin Shahrokni for giving me similar insights in commenting on a draft of this work.
25. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green describe YouTube as a site that is, “U.S.-dominated demographically to an extent; but...feels culturally U.S.-dominated out of all proportion” [Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009), 82].
26. See Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
28. Henry Jenkins, “From Rodney King to Burma: An Interview with Witness's Sam Gregory,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, April 2, 2008,
Juhasz associates “bad video” mostly with talking head vblogs, but notes that “using bad form on other genres of video can limit the effectiveness of your message”
30. Comment on “Cop shoots & Kill unarmed Man(Oscar Grant),” YouTube video, 3:59, posted by “bofoleone,” January 6, 2009,
31. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 37.
32. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 111.
33. Lesley Fulbright and Steve Rubenstein, “BART Protesters in SF: ‘We Are Oscar Grant!’” The San Francisco Chronicle, January 13, 2009,
34. Butler, 30-31.
35. http://nedaspeaks.org; photo count as of April 11, 2012.
36. Dean, 3.
37. “I am Neda,” Tumblr, July 17, 2009,
38. The soldier writes: “ . . . even in the military there are those of us that see what is happening in the world, and we are also appalled. i’m only one country away from iran, and there’s still so little i can do. for what it’s worth, i hope this helps, somehow” [http://iamneda.tumblr.com/post/143617709/i-hope-its-not-too-late-i-am-a-soldier-in-the-us].
39. Sam Gregory, for example, notes that, “most human rights situations are embedded in contexts of structural complexity, long histories of repression and reaction and many actors with different agendas” [Jenkins].
40. David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 154-155; Joyce M. Davis, Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 9.
41. Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 47; Cook, 4; Davis, 46.
42. Journalist Scott Peterson speculates, “Part of the strategy like that, certainly for the Islamic Republic, would be to just cast so much doubt, to really just cloud the issue so much, ... [that] all of it would be meant to somehow undermine the power of the story of Neda's death” [“Interview: Scott Peterson,” Frontline, September 9, 2009, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/deathintehran/interviews/peterson.html].
43. These tropes are described by Cook, 116-134.
44. Examples of Iranians reading Agha-Soltan’s death through the codes of Islamic martyrdom abound in HBO’s For Neda – a documentary that scarcely mentions the word “martyr,” let alone explains its cultural context, but includes interviewees who weave together a forceful, subtextual martyrology more accessible to viewers steeped in Islamic culture [For Neda, directed by Anthony Thomas, aired June 14, 2010].
45. Cook, 4.
46. “Iranian Protests, Neda, Moussavi and more—Rachel Maddow,” YouTube video, 9:34, from an episode of The Rachel Maddow Show televised by MSNBC on June 22, 2009, posted by “CheneyWatch1,” June 28, 2009,
47. Leslie Fulbright, “Many See Race as Central to BART Killing,” The San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 2009,
49. Elizabeth Alexander, “'Can You be BLACK and Look at This?': Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” in The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book, ed. Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 84, 96.
50. Jason Sperb, “Reassuring Convergence: Online Fandom, Race, and Disney’s Notorious Song of the South,” Cinema Journal 49, no. 4 (2010): 28.
51. Demian Bulwa, “Many Police Use Cameras to Record Interactions,” The San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 2010,
53. Cook, 11.
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