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Dying in front of the camera

Dying in front of the camera

What do "Mobile Death Videos" trigger?

by Meike Drießen  

February 27, 2015


Clips of protesters dying in consequence of the conflicts in Iran and Syria appear more and more frequently on YouTube. What do they trigger? How do they change the media and our perception?

Smartphones are everywhere – also during protests and armed conflicts. Often they are used as a camera.

Teheran, June 2009: blurred images show a young woman who falls to the ground, hit by a gunshot. A pool of blood spreads under her body, helpers attempt to quench the flow of blood, her eyes roll back, turn glassy, she dies (fig. 1). The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, recorded with a mobile phone camera, creates a stir on YouTube straightaway, is picked up by global mass media, including ARD and ZDF. The images spark a huge wave of solidarity with representatives of the so-called Green Movement in Iran, which had taken to the streets on that day to protest against the allegedly manipulated elections.

Fig. 1© unknown

The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, recorded with a phone camera in Teheran in 2009.

It is uncertain if Neda was one of the protesters or if she just happened to be in the vicinity. It is just as uncertain if the clip actually shows her death. It may have been faked, as has been asserted in subsequently released videos and by the Iranian government. Mareike Meis considers the authenticity of dying of secondary importance. In her dissertation, she investigates which responses are triggered by such clips in terms of discourse theory and media aesthetics. “Mobile Death Videos” is what she has called them. There has been no phrase for them to date, because research into phone videos has been pretty much non-existent. “Which is surprising, considering that mobile phone videos have been around for quite a long time,” she says. “Research focuses on the Internet and YouTube, the mobile phone is being neglected.” The second starting point of her analysis is a video made by an anonymous mobile phone user who recorded his own death in the Syrian civil war in 2011 (fig. 2); it was also picked up by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué and screened at, for example, Documenta. “There are many differences between these two videos, as well as between other videos shot during both conflicts,” says Mareike Meis. “The perspective switches from the viewer’s PoV to that of the filmmaker.” In the Syrian conflict, the spectator is often made to assume the filmmaker’s point of view and, in the case of the mobile death video, even that of the dying person.

Fig. 2© unknown

The shooter who wants to kill the unknown filmmaker was captured in the clip the victim shot on his mobile phone in Syria in 2011.

“At first glance, such a depiction of the dying process in videos appears new, as something that has never been visible to date,” says the researcher. A closer look reveals, however, that we are familiar with the subject matters, that they are part of the collective memory. “One example would be the photos of the dying Benno Ohnesorg during the student protests in the 1960s,” explains Meis, “or photos Robert Capa took of soldiers in the moment of death during the Spanish Civil War.” The camera perspective of the dying person is nothing new, either. During the military coup in 1973 in Chile, Leonardo Henrichsen filmed his own death by the hand of an army marksman (see film).

What is new is the quality of mobile phone images: a photo cannot represent the moment of death. It shows either the living person shortly before death, or the dead person. Moreover, mobile phone videos boast a greater corporeality than images made by a video camera. The viewer feels like he or she were in the thick of it. “This is probably the reason why those images trigger such extreme emotional responses,” speculates Mareike Meis. “The encounter with death is more intense and more intimate than it was in the era of mass media – although we mustn’t forget that a certain selection of the videos to be viewed takes place on YouTube .”

In the course of her research into what those videos has triggered, the researcher discovered something that she dubbed “Mocking Death Videos”: films that show an alleged execution, where a dancing scene or horror face would be faded in in the last moment. “Some of those films have been probably made for fun with the aim of showing up the viewers’ naivety,” as Meis assesses them, “but some others have a message: the viewer is accused as being sick for watching such films.” In moments such as these, the researcher realises that she has to question her own perspective as well. That viewing death videos is always connected to lust for fear, voyeurism, obscenity, pornography. An academic’s neutral perspective cannot always be maintained.

Fig. 3© RUB, Daniel Sadrowski

Mareike Meis conducted an in-depth study of death recordings, most of which she had found online.

A question that Mareike Meis wishes to answer in the course of her research is in what way such videos affect people who experienced those conflicts. To this end, she plans to conduct interviews with artists who edit these videos and some of whom have helpers in conflict areas who film on location. Via those agents, she hopes to be able to get in touch with other people affected by conflicts, who have been granted asylum and are currently living in Germany. “In the current climate, I cannot travel to Syria, the risk is much too great,” as she elaborates the problem. Moreover, the people with whom she has tried to get in touch often meet her with reservations and suspicions. Her aim is not to conduct interviews with her contacts; rather, she wishes to establish a dialogue that is open and anthropological and to which she wants to contribute herself. How do people affected by conflict perceive the videos? Which role do the videos play? What was it like to be on location and what is it like now to see the footage? What do the affected parties think of how the videos and the subject matter in general are handled here? Moreover, Mareike Meis looks into how the videos are used and potentially instrumentalised. To what extent are they utilised to exercise power? “It is going to be difficult to come to a final conclusion, because the number of such videos that are being uploaded is on the increase,” says the researcher. “But this is a challenge we share with other themes pertaining to media aesthetics."

Contact faculty

Mareike Meis
Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
44780 Bochum, Germany
phone: +49/234/32-21658

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