This post originally appeared on The Hub, WITNESS’ website dedicated to human rights video footage, and can be found here.
This past weekend, the horrific image of a young woman dying on camera in the midst of a protest in Iran turned into a rallying cry for many of those participating/following the events in Iran. In 40 seconds of grainy footage (shot on what appears to be the mobile phone of a passerby), we first see the wounded woman – now identified as Neda – as she falls to the floor into a pool of blood. Two men come to her aid and try to stem the bleeding from her chest. The person filming moves in closer and Neda turns towards the camera, seeming to fix her gaze on the lens pointed at her. A few seconds pass, the bleeding becomes more profuse, and Neda falls unconscious, passing away within moments.
The video (which I won’t link to here but which you can find online should you choose to) was uploaded to YouTube on 20 June with the following description:
At 19:05 June 20th. Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi St. A young woman who was standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes. The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gas used among them, towards Salehi St.The film is shot by my friend who was standing beside me. Please let the world know.
That same day, the video was picked up and broadcast by major media outlets like CNN (which first aired the footage untouched and later showed a new version that blurred Neda’s face). It also spread rapidly via thousands of tweets and retweets on Twitter, becoming one of the most discussed “trending topics” of the day.
As I write this, there are already at least 20 different facebook groups dedicated to Neda with thousands of members, dozens of different tribute videos circulating on YouTube, and a Wikipedia page in the works. A tribute site called We Are All Neda shows 3,694 voices of people who have “left a line in memory of Neda.” On Tuesday, even U.S. President Obama commented on the video, saying he had seen it and found it “heartbreaking.”
But as I watched the video for the first time, a flood of questions raced through my mind (and heart). I thought about the young women and men who have been filling the streets of Iran in recent days; I thought about how seeing those images have made me feel somewhat helpess but mostly inspired and moved to act; I thought about my own sister, who is close to Neda’s age.
And I felt torn. What are the moral and ethical implications of bearing witness to such a horrific image? As concerned citizens, activists, and fellow human beings, how do we balance the need to “spread the word” of what’s unfolding in Iran with the need to respect Neda’s dignity as she dies, as well as the grief of her family faced with such tragedy? What is our responsibility when receiving and watching a video like this? Do we repost it? Forward it to everyone we know and encourage them to watch as well? One side of me – the journalist and activist – has a very instinctive gut reaction to this: of course we show it, it needs to be seen and people need to know what’s really happening. Another side of me thinks about this young woman, her family, and how they might feel about the video of her death becoming viral and turning into a symbol for so many complex things at once.
From a professional standpoint – and as someone whose job it is to look at human rights media every day – there are standard questions we always try to cover when dealing with tough visual imagery like this: questions about consent, safety/security, re-victimization, and context.
And with so many of these questions still unanswered in the video of Neda, I find myself without a good solution of what to do with it. What I know for sure is that it must be seen AND the young woman’s dignity must be respected. Perhaps this delicate balance can be achieved by blurring her identity in the video, or by thinking twice before selecting the image of her bloodied face as your new Facebook status.
This particular video has not found it’s way to The Hub yet – no one has uploaded or embedded it. And although we’ve been pulling in different videos from Iran since the protests began – including other clips that are equally graphic and shocking – I have personally chosen not to repost it here until there’s more reliable information about Neda’s family and their reactions to the massive circulation of the video. What does that change, considering the video is already so widespread across the web? Perhaps nothing. But maybe not posting it now can help raise crucial questions about the issues that need to be better addressed when dealing with sensitive media like this. (Please challenge me on this…) That said, the Hub is a public platform and open to anyone who may wish to post the video at anytime.
In a post about the video, the Boston Herald’s Lauren Beckham Falcone wrote:
The graphic video is unflinching: The camera stays on the woman as she falls to the ground, her eyes rolling back into her head as blood pours from her nose, ears and mouth. It is excruciating to watch, impossible to ignore. It’s the MySpace generation’s shot heard – and seen – ’round the world. The incident has turned “Neda” into a rallying cry for Iranian protesters – this is their Kent State, their Tiananmen Square, their Vietnam. In the ’60s, hippies held sit-ins. Today, we hold up our phones and hit record. Neda’s death – and the lightning speed with which it circled the world – marks a watershed moment for new media. Viral video is the new weapon against despotism; status updates are the dispatches from the front lines.
If this is true, and viral video is in fact “the new weapon against despotism,” then what are the new risks that come with it?
One definite risk is safety. On Tuesday, the son of Ebrahim Yazdi, a pro-reform activist from the banned Freedom of Movement of Iran who was arrested last week in Tehran, went on “The Daily Show” and issued a chilling reminder: “In 1999 when a similar uprising happened [in Iran], people that were caught on videotapes were held for decades simply because they showed up in the video of the demonstration. So we’re all very very concerned for the people who are in the [videos of the] demonstrations…”
A similar warning came via the Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney, who posted this:
June 23, 10:12 AM ET — An Iranian on Facebook says he’s in danger. An Iranian who has built up a large Facebook following by posting a consistent stream of new videos and images from Iran’s demonstrations left this message today: “The Iranian agents attacked Our home, attacked people there and keep looking for me across the country.” It’s a frightening reminder to appreciate all the citizen-produced media we are receiving from Iran. Recording the state’s actions puts a target on your back.
We’ve seen this before – in Burma, for instance, you may remember that more than 1,000 people were systematically hunted down and arrested by the military government for having filmed, distributed or simply appeared in videos of the Saffron Revolution protests in 2007.
So as we see mobile video and citizen media playing an increasingly critical role in exposing what’s happening in Iran and around the world – including in documenting the death of Neda and other protestors– this post invites you to help us reflect on some of the potential implications involved. Here are three questions to get the conversation started:
- What sorts of precautions could/should be taken – both on the ground and from afar – to mitigate the security risks involved for those who filmed and/or appeared in the recent videos of the protests in Iran?
- How can activists and human rights defenders help provide crucial context to these images (such as time, place, description) – adding credibility, validation, and information that could later potentially ensure that the video serves as evidence in the call for justice/accountability?
- With respect to the specific video of Neda: if you’ve seen, heard of, retweeted, reposted, forwarded, downloaded, or remixed it, take a moment to share the thoughts that went through your own mind as you did so…and what role you think a video like that could/should play in furthering the fight for change and human rights.
Help us think this through – please add your own comments, questions, resources, and thoughts in the comments field below.
July 30th, 2009: Protesters gathered and participated in rallies to honor her all over Iran. Reportedly, the rallies faced violence from police and security forces.
September 25th, 2009: The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reiterated his suspicions about the “real perpetrators” behind Neda’s death during an interview with CNN’s Larry King.
November 2009: The suffering endured by Neda’s family and friends continued on past her death when they repeatedly faced harassment and intimidation, revealed in an interview with Neda’s boyfriend, Caspian Makan, for The Observer. Read here Two days after this interview, Frontline released a documentary investigating the life and death of Neda, A Death in Tehran. Watch it here.
February 21, 2010: The video of Neda’s death won the George Polk Award, a prestigious honor in journalism, acknowledging that “in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social networking sites to deliver news.” The Guardian reports that it is the first time in the 61-year history of the awards that an anonymously-produced work has won.