Among the images streaming to us from Iran recently and all the commentary surrounding it there are two pieces I’ve found interesting as discussions on the images themselves. The first comes from the No Caption Needed blog which discusses the differing uses made of photographs by pro-Ahmadinejad supporters (established, timeless-looking portraits of the President and the Ayatollah) and pro-Mousavi protesters (recent images of current events). The posts on either side of this one are pertinent too, in their exploration of non-heroic images of protest elsewhere, and of the images from social media sources.
The second piece is an op-ed from Salon.com by Glenn Greenwald, on Helen Thomas calling President Obama on the suppression of images of torture by US personnel while he responds to the images from Iran and what they tell us about how “unjust” the situation there is. Greenwald goes on the discuss the question of how acceptable the idea of torture seems to have become in US public discourse and how to hide images of torture serves to increase its acceptability. His discussion is more detailed than I can summarize satisfactorily here, and towards the end he quotes law scholar Alice Ristroph who also makes the connection between the two sets of images and argues, despite what the president says about the US torture images having no informational value, that images can “convey ideas and information for which we have no words” and that they “can make us speak and think about subjects that we would otherwise like to avoid.”
Update, 8 July 2009: CNN has an article that describes the images of Neda as iconic, in the manner of the Kent State photograph by John Filo, and the Vietnam War photo by Eddie Adams. What’s interesting is that these iconic images are still photos (though Adams’ picture is accompanied by newsreel footage), and the Neda images are on video. I wondered which frame would be used as a still from this sequence which needs to be actively sought out to be seen without cuts of blurred sections, as many news organisations have shown them. It’s visceral power for me is precisely the fact that it is moving, that we see Neda lying down, looking up, then bleeding from her mouth and nose in a flood. It’s horrifying because it seems so inexorable. We can watch it happen, we can watch that journey from life to death and it’s fixed, with nothing anybody can do about it. The still image itself would be weaker by comparison, but maybe as something that can be circulated more widely it can be ultimately more potent.
A little bit later the New York Times, Randy Cohen in his Moral of the Story column took up the discussion about the US Government’s banning of the pictures. It’s a succinct summary of the issue and a good argument for disclosure. Cohen also includes this image in his article:
[image: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press: “A placard was displayed during a demonstration at the Iranian Embassy in London last Tuesday”]
It’s a still (from the video) which I’ve seen reproduced elsewhere in protests, and here it’s being used quite deftly. The final, horrible image of Neda’s bleeding face is the central motif, but the whole thing is posterised, made graphically simpler. More easily reproducible? Less messy certainly. But more clear too, I think. The text makes the purpose of the image clear, and the green makes the solidarity with the protesters clear as well. This image is serving a purpose, much as the No Caption Needed blog above talks about with other photos from the protests. But this image is already an adaptation, a much more designed piece of work than simply being a photograph. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given that the video needs to be translated somehow into a flat piece of paper. But I wonder how the image will evolve and persist. Because it must, in some form. Neda’s death needs it.