In Media Res: Ubiquitous video, local humiliation, networked dignity

Late last year I curated a week of posts for In Media Res, a superb project that brings anthropologists together to talk about online video.  Writing fascinatingly alongside me were Sarah Van Deusen Phillips, Melissa Gira-Grant and Leshu Torchin.  Here’s my post, originally published here:

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…

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