American “Activism”: On the Neda Video, and Other Images of the Brutal Third World

by Guest Contributor Catherine A. Traywick, originally published at Femmalia

Two weeks after the much-publicized death of Iranian protester, Neda — whose final moments were famously captured by a cell phone camera and distributed the world over — a couple dozen performers put together a music video tribute slash “non-violent resistance” anthem filmed (appropriately?) with nothing but a cell phone camera. Described by CNN as “a call to action against human rights violations by the Iranian government against Iranians,” the video’s creators/stars rap and harmonize about non-violence, their fuzzy, pixelated faces crooning between clips of the now historic footage of Neda’s death.

The graphic clips excerpted by the creators of the video for the the purpose of spreading their message of solidarity and pacifism have generated a cacophony of international outrage, sympathy, outright disbelief, and controversy since their initial circulation a few weeks ago. While the footage has galvanized protesters in Iran, creating for them a martyr to rally around as they strive for real, lasting change, it has also prompted enthusiastic Americans to wear green and tweet about revolution in what has already been described by numerous commentators as a superficial and ineffectual display of “solidarity.” The “United for Neda” video, as well-intentioned and misguided as any green-clad American, seems to fall into the latter category. Like Americans who continually replay the Neda footage in order to sustain a dimming sense of shock, outrage, and civic duty while imagining a connection to a less complacent world, the music video appropriates the controversial images of Neda with the aim of fostering activism through the propagation of sensational violence.

Plenty has been written on the subject already. Virtually every reporter covering current events in Iran has addressed the issue of Neda’s death in some way or other — sometimes dramatically (in the case of CNN, who broke the story) and sometimes tenderly (in the case of Roger Cohen, who never fails to convey a sense of humanity and compassion in his thoughtful articulations of the events unfolding in Iran). Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Neda video was a hoax based one source’s “obvious rhetorical flourish” when recounting the event, while others have criticized our macabre fascination with the woman’s death (as evidenced by the video’s propagation).

Perhaps the most interesting bit of commentary I’ve read on the subject, however, is a piece on a personal blog which suggests that Americans’ sense of humanitarian duty is only activated by their vociferous consumption of violence against people of color:

On blog threads, commenters are thanking bloggers for posting the video of Neda’s death [...]

I understand these readers’ sentiments, but why? Why must we see an Iranian woman die on a city street in order to understand the gravity of the country’s political upheaval? Why must we see brown bodies bloated and floating to give a damn about the tsunami in Myanmar or the hurricane in New Orleans? Why did we have to see Oscar Grant killed in cold blood by police on a BART platform to talk about racism and the justice system? Why did it take the mangled body of 14-year-old Emmitt Till to give America an inkling of the tyranny and danger that black folks faced in the South every day?

I think Americans are fetishizing video of Neda Soltani’s death in a way they would not if she were a young, blonde, American college student shot down on an American street. We do not need to see the lifeless bodies of those women in order to care for them. But people like Neda owe access to their deaths so Americans can access their own humanity.

While I take issue with the author’s easy assertion that the phenomenon described above is based entirely on racial dynamics, there’s value in her overall argument. I have often wondered about photojournalists’ depictions of the third world which often disproportionately emphasize the negative — particularly as compared to depictions of the first world. I’ve also been troubled by our apparent preference for images of the third world that seem to affirm our perceptions of its brutal nature. Take a look at Pulitzer Prize winners over the last decade, for example…it’s a scrapbook of third world suffering and devastation: Kevin Carter’s controversial photo of a Sudanese baby being stalked by a vulture, Stephanie Walsh’s photo series depicting a Kenyan woman’s circumcision, Carolyn Cole’s images of the effects of the Liberian civil war, Adrees Latif’s photograph of a fatally wounded man lying in a street in Myanmar, and the list goes on. Patrick Farrell, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for “Breaking News Photography” similarly depicts “provocative, impeccably composed images of despair after Hurricane Ike and other lethal storms caused a humanitarian disaster in Haiti.”

What leads me to argue that this is not simply a race issue, however, is our culture’s reverence for photos like those of Damon Winter — also a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer — which consist of triumphant, inspiring images of Barack Obama campaigning during the presidential primary. We love heroic depictions of America(ns), regardless of skin color — emphasis on the “heroic,” because that is how we love to see ourselves, especially in relation to the rest of world.

That’s the issue at hand, really. We craft our own national and cultural identity in opposition the that of the rest of the world; the more devastating and woeful they are, the bigger and brighter we are by comparison.

The Neda video affirms this dichotomy of the world for us, depicting “them” as either brutish or helpless while reifying our sense of superior self and, in so doing, activating our sense of entitlement as the the third world’s savior. And, while indulging a savior complex is never a productive starting point for activism, at least the intention is noble however misguided the articulation of that intention proves to be in the long run….

Changing our facebook profile pictures to the color green and disseminating a video of a dying woman within circles that have absoultely no stake in the conflict that led to her death aren’t the most fruitful (or respectful) methods of supporting a cause. And while photojournalist depictions of third world devastation may expose us to issues that desperately need international support and attention, one hopes that we are evolved enough to support humanitarian (and other) causes without having to get off on images that would be considered no less than exploitative and cruel if they depicted the last moments of our own loved ones’ lives.

The kind of “activism” that is motivated by a short-term visceral response is superficial and similarly fleeting — and the artists responsible for creating the “United for Neda” video ought to make themselves aware of that fact. They, like us, should support a cause because, intellectually, we understand the ethical implications of our action and inaction, and have cultivated a sense of civic duty based on our sense of civic justice….and not because we had an emotional reaction to a moment of violence suspended in time.

(Image Credit – We Are All Neda.com)