Iran Protests: A Woman Dies on Camera - to post or not to post?

Regions: Iran

Issues: Elections, Freedom of opinion & expression, Violence

Tags: ahmadinejad, ethics, graphic, human dignity, mobile, mousavi, Neda, Protests, revictimization, safety, security, twitter, video evidence

UPDATE, 21 FEBRUARY 2010: The anonymous video of the death of Neda wins the  George Polk Award - one of the most important honors in journalism - in an acknowledgement that "in today's world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social networking sites to deliver news." The Guardian reports that it is the fist time in the 61-year history of the awards that an anonymously-produced work has won. Read more.

UPDATE, 17 NOVEMBER 2009: Frontline's documentary A Death in Tehran investigates the life and death of Neda. Watch it here.

UPDATE, 15 NOVEMBER 2009: In an interview with The Observer, Neda's boyfriend Caspian Makan (now living in exile outside of Iran) talks about his time in detention and about the harassment and intimidation Neda's family and friends have endured since her death. Read here.

UPDATE, 25 SEPTEMBER 2009: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterates his suspicions about the "real perpetrators" behind Neda's death in an interview with CNN's Larry King.

UPDATE, 30 JULY 2009: *On the day that marks 40 days since Neda's death, protestors gathered in Iran to honor Neda.  Some media outlets are reporting that the rallies are being met with violence by police and security forces and that opposition leaders have been barred from Neda's gravesite. *In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Neda's mother says her family hasn't allowed her to see the video yet and she knows that it is "very painful and moving." Neda's brother "starts to cry every time [he watches the video."

Original Post, 24 June 2009: This past weekend, the horrific image of a young woman dying on camera in the midst of a protest in Iran turned into a rallying cry for many of those participating/following the events in Iran.  In 40 seconds of grainy footage (shot on what appears to be the mobile phone of a passerby), we first see the wounded woman - now identified as Neda - as she falls to the floor into a pool of blood.  Two men come to her aid and try to stem the bleeding from her chest.  The person filming moves in closer and Neda turns towards the camera, seeming to fix her gaze on the lens pointed at her.  A few seconds pass, the bleeding becomes more profuse, and Neda falls unconscious, passing away within moments. 

The video (which I won't link to here but which you can find online should you choose to) was uploaded to YouTube on 20 June with the following description:

At 19:05 June 20th
Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st.

A young woman who was standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim's chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes.
The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gas used among them, towards Salehi St.
The film is shot by my friend who was standing beside me.
Please let the world know.

That same day, the video was picked up and broadcast by major media outlets like CNN (which first aired the footage untouched and later showed a new version that blurred Neda's face).  It also spread rapidly via thousands of tweets and retweets on Twitter, with #Neda becoming one of the most discussed "trending topics" of the day. 

As I write this, there are already at least 20 different Facebook groups dedicated to Neda with thousands of members, dozens of different tribute tribute videos circulating on YouTube, and a Wikipedia page in the works.  A tribute site called We Are All Neda shows 3,694 voices of people who have "left a line in memory of Neda."  On Tuesday, even U.S. President Obama commented on the video, saying he had seen it and found it "heartbreaking."

But as I watched the video for the first time, a flood of questions raced through my mind (and heart).  I thought about the young women and men who have been filling the streets of Iran in recent days;  I thought about how seeing those images have made me feel somewhat helpess but mostly inspired and moved to act;  I thought about my own sister, who is close to Neda's age.

And I felt torn.  What are the moral and ethical implications of bearing witness to such a horrific image?  As concerned citizens, activists, and fellow human beings, how do we balance the need to "spread the word" of what's unfolding in Iran with the need to respect Neda's dignity as she dies, as well as the grief of her family faced with such tragedy?  What is our responsibility when receiving and watching a video like this?  Do we repost it?  Forward it to everyone we know and encourage them to watch as well?  One side of me - the journalist and activist - has a very instinctive gut reaction to this: of course we show it, it needs to be seen and people need to know what's really happening.  Another side of me thinks about this young woman, her family, and how they might feel about the video of her death becoming viral and turning into a symbol for so many complex things at once...

From a professional standpoint - and as someone whose job it is to look at human rights media every day - there are standard questions we always try to cover when dealing with tough visual imagery like this: questions about consent, safety/security, re-victimization, and context.

And with so many of these questions still unanswered in the video of Neda, I find myself without a good solution of what to do with it.  What I know for sure is that it must be seen AND the young woman's dignity must be respected.  Perhaps this delicate balance can be achieved by blurring her identity in the video, or by thinking twice before selecting the image of her bloodied face as your new Facebook status.  This particular video has not found it's way here to the Hub yet - no one has uploaded or embedded it.  And although we've been pulling in different videos from Iran since the protests began - including other clips that are equally graphic and shocking - I have personally chosen not to repost it here until there's more reliable information about Neda's family and their reactions to the massive circulation of the video.  What does that change, considering the video is already so widespread across the web?  Perhaps nothing.  But maybe not posting it now can help raise crucial questions about the issues that need to be better addressed when dealing with sensitive media like this. (Please challenge me on this...)  That said, the Hub is a public platform and open to anyone who may wish to post the video at anytime...   

In a post about the video, the Boston Herald's Lauren Beckham Falcone wrote: 

"The graphic video is unflinching: The camera stays on the woman as she falls to the ground, her eyes rolling back into her head as blood pours from her nose, ears and mouth. It is excruciating to watch, impossible to ignore.

It's the MySpace generation's shot heard - and seen - 'round the world.

The incident has turned "Neda" into a rallying cry for Iranian protesters - this is their Kent State, their Tiananmen Square, their Vietnam. In the '60s, hippies held sit-ins. Today, we hold up our phones and hit record.

Neda's death - and the lightning speed with which it circled the world - marks a watershed moment for new media. Viral video is the new weapon against despotism; status updates are the dispatches from the front lines."

If this is true, and viral video is in fact "the new weapon against despotism," then what are the new risks that come with it? 

One definite risk is safety.  On Tuesday, the son of Ebrahim Yazdi, a pro-reform activist from the banned Freedom of Movement of Iran who was arrested last week in Tehran, went on the Daily Show and issued a chilling reminder: "In 1999 when a similar uprising happened [in Iran], people that were caught on videotapes were held for decades simply because they showed up in the video of the demonstration.  So we're all very very concerned for the people who are in the [videos of the] demonstrations..." 

A similar warning came via the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, who posted this:

June 23, 10:12 AM ET -- An Iranian on Facebook says he's in danger. An Iranian who has built up a large Facebook following by posting a consistent stream of new videos and images from Iran's demonstrations left this message today: "The Iranian agents attacked Our home, attacked people there and keep looking for me across the country." It's a frightening reminder to appreciate all the citizen-produced media we are receiving from Iran. Recording the state's actions puts a target on your back. 

We've seen this before - in Burma, for instance, you may remember that more than 1,000 people were systematically hunted down and arrested by the military government for having filmed, distributed or simply appeared in videos of the Saffron Revolution protests in 2007.    

So as we see mobile video and citizen media playing an increasingly critical role in exposing what's happening in Iran and around the world - including in documenting the death of Neda and other protestors - this post invites you to help us reflect on some of the potential implications involved.  Here are three questions to get the conversation started:

1) What sorts of precautions could/should be taken - both on the ground and from afar - to mitigate the security risks involved for those who filmed and/or appeared in the recent videos of the protests in Iran?

2) How can activists and human rights defenders help provide crucial context to these images (such as time, place, description) - adding credibility, validation, and information that could later potentially ensure that the video serves as evidence in the call for justice/accountability?

3) With respect to the specific video of Neda: if you've seen, heard of, retweeted, reposted, forwarded, downloaded, or remixed it, take a moment to share the thoughts that went through your own mind as you did so...and what role you think a video like that could/should play in furthering the fight for change and human rights. 

Help us think this through - please add your own comments, questions, resources, and thoughts in the comments field below... 

Read more on the story of Neda:

- Guardian interview with Hamed, the YouTube user who first posted the video of Neda (see the entry at 2:45pm).

- Gawker: Neda, The Face of a Revolution

- Time: In Iran, One Woman's Death May Have Many Consequences

- BBC Persia: an interview with Caspian Makan, Neda's fiancé (translated into English and reposted at 1:03pm on the Huffington Post's live-blogging of the protests in Iran)  

- AlJazeera: Fiancé tells of Neda's last moments

- Times Online: Iranian authorities scramble to negate Neda Soltan 'martyrdom'

- What Neda Means: Citizen Media Frames the Protests  

RESOURCE: Read more about consent, safety, and security in our Video Advocacy Toolkit


For some people this is a

For some people this is a tragic fact of life and for some cultures it is a daily occurence. We can be insular and pretend nothing bad is going on around the world, but seeing this type of thing is a wake up call, that it could happen in our own back yard. Thank you for sharing.

very painful

that is very painful to watch. But just like the first commented said, it does need to be put out there

For some people this is a

For some people this is a tragic fact of life and for some cultures it is a daily occurence. We can be insular and pretend nothing bad is going on around the world, but seeing this type of thing is a wake up call, that it could happen in our own back yard.

Death on Screen

Our media sanitizes our viewing to the point where few people know what is going on.
If we are to respond to our world then we have to have the truth.
Neda's death, anyone's needles death, is tragic but we must
witness the TRUTH if we want to change it.
Our organisation has just shot a documentary which outlines the mechanisms that work against democracy the environment and society as a whole.
We are asking people to watch the trailer and sign up to see the film at our website

Thank you very much for the

Thank you very much for the excellent and useful subject.

Neda is your sister and my niece

Dear Nicole- You bring a very good point. Where do you draw the line between human rights and a human's right?
I feel everything you are saying. Your journalistic instinct- I'm afraid to say- but it is the right way. But at the same time it is all in the context, how it is presented, with respect and humility or with indifference and apathy!
When you say she is your sister's age. Well, that is the point isn't it? That innocent- peace seeking- civilians like you and I and all the rest of us here, are targeted as well.
I went looking for the video after your blog. I saw it twice, maybe 3 times. I love the fact that she looked at the camera. That was her message across the world.

NYTimes' Ethicist on the power of photographs

I've been meaning to post this for a while. The New York Times' Ethicist blog posted a rebuke to President Obama for his handling of a press conference question to the effect that, if it was important for the world to see the video of Neda's death, why was it not also important for the world to see photographic evidence of abuse by US military personnel?
and a follow-up post a couple of days later:
Sameer Padania | |

I have been searching for a

I have been searching for a blog by someone who felt the same way I have been feeling about the Iran/youtube phenomenon. I have been extremely torn. I'm not sure how I would feel if my loved one was killed, captured, then spread throughout the internet. I know we need to see the truth, but it's a lot more complex than that.

This is indeed tragic story

This is indeed tragic story in a real life and so sad for all the peoples who loves peace and democracy. Hope this does not happen again in the future and hope this is the last.

GlobalVoices on Iranian Government trying to identify protesters

...along the lines of protecting the safety and security of those shown in the videos of the protests, here's an interesting post by GV's Hamid Tehrani: