Ubiquitous video, local humiliation, networked dignity

Curator's Note

Shaky, grainy, traumatic footage filmed on mobile phones wielded by brave citizens - from Burma to Tibet to Iran - has fast become both part of and fuel for contemporary narratives of uprising, struggle and repression - and it increasingly represents one of the key acts of resistance that individual citizens in repressive societies can make.  While this now makes it seem almost commonplace in the rituals of human rights media, it wasn't always thus.

I've been tracking, analysing and curating human rights video online for the human rights organisation WITNESS since the middle of 2006, initially via a blog aiming to unearth examples of activists using new technologies to document, expose and bring an end to human rights violations.  A large number of stories were about mobile phone video - from police cells in Egypt to the execution of Saddam Hussein - and strikingly the most compelling, unvarnished and actionable footage often came from the cameras of the human rights abusers themselves. 

Most of these cases showed networked technologies could reinforce repression - specifically taking mobile footage of humiliation, beatings, abuse, torture, happening in secret places, to show it directly to those you want to intimidate, and to circulate it more widely via Bluetooth "pour encourager les autres".  But in a certain number of instances case the videos found their way into the hands of outraged activists who spread and publicised the abuses online, to often global attention, with the long-term effect of focusing attention, activism, and advocacy to the governments tolerating or sponsoring these abuses, or at the very least, to undermine officially sanctioned or imposed narratives of law, order, justice. 

Some videos, however, don't make the same dent.  My chosen video is one of the very first mobile phone human rights videos I ever saw, one that circulated for months in Chechnya until it reached the eyes of a New York Times reporter, and thence the wider world.  In Argun, Chechnya, in March 2006, the woman in this video, Malika Soltayeva, was abducted by local security forces (kadyrovsty), after her husband alleged that she had had an affair with a Russian militiaman stationed in the town.  Soltayeva was pregnant at the time, and after a series of humiliating abuses, all captured on mobile video by her kadyrovsty attackers - having her head and eyebrows shaved off, her head daubed with a crucifix in green paint, her now bare scalp painted green, and being beaten, kicked, taunted - lost the baby a few days later.  Bravely, Malika launched a legal case to bring her attackers to justice, supported by international submissions from the likes of the Helsinki Commission

This segment of the video (there's more detail at the NYT site) follows the moments after the kadyrovsty had released her, and shows them forcing her to dance in the street in her degraded and abused state.  The camera is both distant and uncomfortably persistent - but importantly, unlike most of the clips in the early stories we were covering, it is filming in public space, for public humiliation.  It's a scene that seems somehow emblematic of ancient hierarchies and punishments - the public shaming by men of a woman for alleged adultery, but also a religious marker, with the "thumb-thick" crucifix on her forehead painted in the green of Islam.  The video did not receive as wide a circulation outside traditional human rights circles as others above have, and fell perhaps a little into the shadows until the murder earlier this year of human rights defender Natalia Estemirova - who was, among many things, instrumental in bringing this story to light, as the NYT's C J Chivers acknowledged.  Is the reason that the video didn't receive more sustained international focus that it's just one among a huge number of human rights violations - assassinations, censorship, disappearances, mass graves - in Chechnya?  Or is it more that the humiliating abuse seems to come almost from a pre human rights era, like tarring and feathering, or a scarlet letter?  Another video, purporting to be of public witch-burnings in Kenya, surfaced on Wikileaks many months ago, and similarly gained only limited attention, despite the graphic content.  Do events that are already public somehow circulate less readily?

At WITNESS we're working to understand the mechanisms and dynamics by which this kind of video emerges and circulates, as human rights values clash with other values, and as privacy is contiuously renegotiated.  We are also working to help shape ethical norms that are relevant to the newer modes of networked audio-visual communication to ensure that when video of this kind does emerge, it both inspires the advocacy and action that is necessary to end the abuses shown, and is shown in a context that places a primacy on the dignity and security of the persons depicted.  How this plays out under an anthropological lens is something that we're deeply interested in, and we welcome your thoughts...


Sameer--you raise many important issues and questions here, especially the question of why certain videos gain traction and action while others do not.  I suspect (based on my work investigating the role of digital media in activism) that a big part of the problem is established frames of reference.  For example, in the African human rights world, people are hugely concerned with the continuing violence in Darfur or the reconciliation process in Rwanda, but most of us never hear about the violence surrounding conflict minerals in The Congo.  YouTube recently launched a campaign to use video to draw attention to this situtaion (ironic, given that it is the tech industry thtat spurs on the violence), but I wonder how well it will catch on?  People can now see the atrocities committed in The Congo and learn that they are the result of our conumer choices as we buy the latest and greatest gadget, but it is so far outside established frames of reference, that I suspect it will take time to catch on (that and people don't want to be uncomfortable buying and using their snazzy new iPhones--but that's another issue).  I think that witnessing events through video cracks open a problem a little bit, but discourse has to catch it up and sustain it.  So then the qeustion becomes, how do we get the big human rights organizations to act on behalf of The Congo and elevate its crisis status to that of Darfur?

Sameer, thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful post. Sarah, thank you for pinpointing the very question I found so compelling.


I wondering about questions of traction-- why do some videos circulate and others don't. There is something about images that already resonate with the available interpretive grids. Christian iconography retains a certain popularity, so images that cause viewers to remark upon likeness to 'pietas' or other martyrdoms tend to be present. Things are shifting, and I wish I could think of another example at the moment, but those images and ideas that recall already established violations serve as that kind of shorthand that readily moves-- even if it smuggles in other sorts of meaning.


Gaining attention may also be reliant on invisible strategies of visibility. This is a somewhat oblique way of bringing up a question that has come to interest me: How is it that Burma has become so prevalent in the popular realm, given the longstanding nature of the abuses and violations that have been taking place? Is it that the partnership of Burma Issues with WITNESS has contributed significant groundwork to foster entry of Burma into more discussions?


I think of Sudan and Darfur here because I suspect that the place of this crisis (or, rather, crises) in the public domain has been faciliated by longstanding presence of activists-- and in particular evangelical activists who have been at work with tending to the new slavery issues (with a controverisal buy back programme) and with touring Lost Boys who give testimony and cultivate attention and attention getting mechanisms. The Lost Boys are survivors of another conflict, but their presence (not to mention the evocative title-- one that invites all listeners to be Wendy) may have served to secure attention and to build the circuits through which these concerns and images travel.


I have more to say about the DRC, conflict minerals, especially with regard to the child soldiers whose stories have also been useful in achieving much needed attention, but I suspect I ought to read further posts firsts.


What does strike me, however, is the concatenation of factors that help to make an issue a popular one. Well, that and the way certain strategies of representation may prove 'effective' in gaining attention, but may also cause confusion, or carry in unwanted meanings.

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