Cellphone Footage as Witness and Instrument for Vigilante Justice

Curator's Note

I’ve chosen to focus on two recent cases in India which highlight how cellphone footage can become both a witness and a tool of vigilante justice. In November 2014, two sisters hit the headlines when a video taken by other passengers showed them fighting with three young men who had allegedly harassed them on a bus. The men’s version of the story says the fight was over a seat. The veracity of the girls’ story was recently called into question when they were unable to pass a Polygraph test by the police.

A similar incident took place when a video of a woman confronting her alleged molester in an airplane, was posted on YouTube on 31st January 2015, with an explanatory note from the woman. The businessman was allegedly touching her inappropriately through the seats. Both videos went viral, with the latter currently having nearly 7.5 million views on YouTube. The videos do not show the alleged crime, but its aftermath, which is open to interpretation.

In both cases, the identities of the accused were released on social media, in an effort to ‘shame’ them. In the clip I’ve taken from a popular news source, you can see the media sensationalizing the event. Should the women have relied solely on the law enforcement authorities, instead of trying to mete out ‘justice’ on their own? In a country where eve-teasing and sexual violence against women is all too common, there is not much faith in the judiciary.

In the accompanying post, the woman wrote “i made sure i humiliate him as much as possible because i know law will do nothing”. There has been backlash, with many questioning the women’s authenticity, going to the other extreme and invoking the sexist stereotype of the woman who cries rape (or sexual assault) and destroys the life of the innocent man. This is a complex issue. Of course women should not remain silent when being harassed, and it’s good to have footage as ‘witness’, but are the effects of the video going viral on the alleged perpetrator’s life proportionate to the crime he is accused of committing? Or does he fulfill the role of a scapegoat for the society to punish for the collective guilt of the millions of men who molest women in India?


I was not aware of these incidents. The woman's quote is very telling: "I made sure i humiliate him as much as possible because i know law will do nothing." How useful can cell phone evidence be if the law allows misogyny?

I'm intrigued by the many instances in which it seems video evidence is held up as concrete proof of violence, yet interpretations of those videos remain pretty varied. Take this one--where a freeze frame suggested a 16-year-old rape victim was smiling--that led to an acquittal. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2006-03-04/news/0603040162_1_sexual-a... Evidence, it seems, remains in the eye of the beholder, and rape culture, ultimately, plays a strong role in how these videos are read by the public and by those entrusted to make legal decisions.

Antar, that's what makes the issue so complex. It is easy to agree that individuals should leave judgement and punishment to the state, innocent until proven guilty etc, but what about when people don't believe the law can deliver justice? The law in India does not permit misogyny per say, but there definitely is a problem in implementation. But the issue with vigilantism and trying people in the court of social opinion is that these opinions are easily swayed and subjective- for eg. the boys in the first incident received a lot of negative publicity. With increasing evidence questioning the girls' story, we have to ask, who pays the price there? Karen, thanks for your comment. As was also highlighted in Antar's post, interpretation of visual evidence is affected by cultural stereotypes and biases, like you've said. The link you've posted seems to be a good example of the ambiguous nature of cell phone footage. In the incidents mentioned in my post, it becomes even more ambiguous since they only show the aftermath, and not the alleged crime.

These examples seem like potential responses to Ben Brucato's post on the relationship between recording and intervention. Here these women utilize the cell phone camera to intervene in media res, as it were. Of course this comes with a slew of its own issues regarding ethics and politics. Coming at this from the perspective of documentary cinema and the discussion of ethics there, it is almost always presumed that power resides on the side of the camera but is that the case here? And, if so, what sort of power is it and what are the attendant ethical obligations and political potentials of this power to intervene by means of recording? One other compelling aspect of this, to me at least, is that these exchanges suspend the drive to look for proof in the images--these are not evidence of the crime and do not promise to justify only to enact a response. Not an unambiguous thing but a compelling departure from how we, despite our cynical skepticism (albeit well founded), continue to look to cell phone videos and the like for definitive proof.

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