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History in the Making


To capture death, you need the right technique and the right moment. The public, filmed death of Neda Agha-Soltan had just been sent from Tehran via email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and every possible television station to the entire networked world when the usual reflex of media critique and propaganda began. Since the photographic image can no longer be trusted, yet no one wants to deprive themselves of it, the roles in this short-lived game are predefined. The anonymously made video, probably shot with a cell phone camera, gave a face to the protests against the results of the Iranian presidential election. The protests became a story that could be retold, fitting for the invention of the “Twitter revolution.”

Due to the news embargo imposed in Tehran, and a lack of other journalistic witnesses, the video simultaneously fulfilled multiple functions of real and symbolic politics. In an initial reaction, the Iranian state media declared the video a fake. At the same time, however, they also confirmed that several people had been killed during the day’s protests. Then, parallel to the blossoming of the Neda cult worldwide, various versions of and conspiracy theories about the death of the young woman began circulating, for example, that British or CIA agents (but no Basij militiamen) had been involved, or that co-conspirators had shot her as a spy while she was staging her own death for the cameras using fake blood. Her striking gaze into the camera was held against her. And while the Iranian cyberwar between state power and the opposition began to grow, thanks to new filtering and anti-censorship programs, the hoax community on the internet also debated all possible details and particularities of the Tehran street scene.

In its emotional logics, the entirely de-contextualized scene recalled another prominent victim icon of recent history: televised images of the death of a Palestinian boy in Gaza shortly after the onset of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The “France 2” clip from September 30, 2000, shows twelve-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah hanging onto his father for protection as he is hit by Israeli soldiers’ bullets: Palestinians throw stones, Israeli soldiers shoot back, a child dies. In this case, the cameraman was known by name (Talal Abu Rahma), although the correspondent who edited and provided commentary on the film material (Charles Enderlin), was not on site. Numerous streets, squares, and schools in the Arab world were named after Muhammad al-Durrah, the young martyr. The picture of the boy also haunted the macabre video from Pakistan with which the world learned of the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002. In France and Israel, legal and political quarrels, ballistic examinations, and counter-statements culminated in accusations that the filmed scene had been staged by the Palestinians—in the tradition of blood libel legends. Some eccentrics claim that Muhammad al-Durrah is still just as much alive now as he was before.

Neda, the philosophy student who did not go out to vote, was selected as 2009’s Person of the Year by the London Times. At Queen’s College in Oxford, a scholarship was set up in her name. According to the Times, she was entirely apolitical, but according to her fiancé (a photojournalist appearing in a dubious minor role), she is thought to have said that “each person leaves a footprint in this world.” In Farsi, Neda means “voice” or “call.” The anonymous authors of the Tehran video were honored with the George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious journalistic awards in the US, in the newly created category of videography. The award also served to pay tribute to news shows and agencies’ increasing tendency to fall back on user-generated content. Video writes history. Adapting lines from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, it might be possible to say here that “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past,” not only do men “make their own history,” but also personally illustrate it. NEDA, as an acronym for “Nothing Except Democracy Acceptable,” appeared printed on T-shirts.

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