I was at a conference recently, that dealt with questions around visual culture. During the discussions, quite a few people were talking about the way new developments in communication or image creation change us. That made me think.
Humans, on a biological level, have been quite slow to change. Our lifespan is too long to enable evolution to push us forward at a very high pace. That did not really matter, since the environment in which we are living was relatively stable, if looked at globally. Sure, there have always been plaques and catastrophes that brought humans to the brink of extinction, but these, almost always, were quite local events. As far as we know it, only once in our common history (70.000-80.000 years ago), was humanity as a whole very close to vanish. But it didn’t.
We were able to compensate every change around us with the size of our brains and our ability to function as a group, rather than merely as a collection of individuals.
Now, it seems, that the world that surrounds us, has gained speed, when it comes to change. But that change in technology, science, communication, is a change that happens to us, rather than something that emanates from us. We are affected by these changes, but the question is, whether we are changing ourselves. That I doubt.
I believe that we are getting to see our own limitations, when the world around changes drastically, and we notice friction, when we are not able to adapt at a similar pace. The growing friction could be understood as us changing. We are basically still these fearful creatures, that are hiding in a cave, afraid we might get eaten any moment now. And sure, we know how to make fire by now, but the whole thing is still deeply troubling and from time to time feels like magic.
I am currently applying for a research position. I am not going to get it – why should I? I am just an artist. Part of the requirement though was to send in some writing samples. I took this as an excuse to write some stuff. Part of it might repeat some of the ideas I have already mentioned here. But much of it is new. So I just post it.
If you wanted to film an execution, how would you go about?
The boundless Stage
If the question in the title of this text would not be about how to film an execution, but how to film a birthday party for a small child, the answer might apparently be easier to answer. We might go and check how others have done it. We visit sites like Facebook or YouTube, we check our personal archives, we ask others. We remember how Hollywood does it. In general, we try to remember our common visual language, which in return might give us guidance on how something like this is properly done. Certainly, the key shot has to be, when the child blows out the candle. People in the background do a countdown and then, oh joy, the happy moment. We all know how this looks like. Even those of us, who have actually never attended a single birthday that had been celebrated in this fashion.
There are two sides to that. There is the ritual. The fact that we celebrate a special day for each person, once a year. The cake. The presents. The songs.
And then there is the visual aspect. Try to picture a birthday party and we all can agree on a basic appearance. But many of these images that come to mind, are actually not of events, you have been participating in. They have come to you through the broadest variety of media. From the picture albums of friends and family, to movies and TV.
In our visually driven society, the image has become a key element in the ritual itself. Pictures must be taken and shared for the event to be valid. The ritual is set up in such a way to be easily photographed or filmed. And all too often, the images seem to be more important than what had originally been the key aspect of the ritual.
Recently, I had been invited to the birthday party of a one-year old child, whose parents had to flee the civil war in Syria. Once the decoration was up, the food was on the table, the candle lit and the child in its seat of honor, there was a ten-minute frenzy, when everyone was trying to get the right shot. Many of the images were instantly shared online. Relatives were connected live via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The adult guest queued to get their picture take with the toddler. The candle was lit multiple times, to be blown out repeatedly. Once all the pictures had been taken and the food was on the plates, the toddler was put back into its play pen and mostly ignored for the rest of the evening. His job in the ritual was done, even though, originally, the ritual was meant as a celebration of his birthday.
The pictures had been taken and the event was a full success – maybe especially since the pictures looked like ones from a successful event.
Not only do the pictures become part of the ritual, the taking of the pictures too has become a key element. We all remember “Uncle Herbert” taking pictures on certain private occasions. And there were the professional photographers during public events. This is why we know how to pose in front of the camera. And we know how to do this differently in different circumstances.
So, the ritualized aspect of image taking isn’t new, yet the reach of the medium is far greater today than ever before and I would argue that photography and video certainly help to ritualize our lives even further than before. More and more moments in life are photographed constantly and more and more of these moments develop a “correct” look.
With the omnipresence of cameras, we have come to expect pictures to be taken in every imaginable situation. Parts of private life, that had remained private before, become public. But this might also create another feedback loop. Since more and more things, events, places become potential interests for the camera, it becomes crucial to be photogenic. Like the table at the birthday party, many things and events around us, are set up in such a way to easily create pleasing images. This seems to be dictated by the images already associated with a certain object or situation. So, the visual language of images is being transferred into the real world. Not long ago, food photography was a sub-genre with a very limited application. Today, many people replace the short prayer before the meal with a picture of the way the food is served. And this certainly has a big influence on how the food is served – and maybe even what food is being eaten.
In the setting of a TV studio, this seems natural, since everything is created for the camera. But the cameras today point in all directions. The stage has lost its boundaries. But on this boundless stage, everyone becomes an actor and every moment in life part of the play.
This is evident in almost every public event today. There always seems to be a multitude of cameras pointing at every little detail.
It is even true, when looking at many of the public executions shown in Islamist propaganda videos. Of course, to the audience that (quite often forcibly) attends these, they are a spectacle and we have learned that spectacles need to be recorded visually. Filming and taking pictures during the suffering of fellow human beings seems to be a sign of an evil and perverted culture, but I believe that the lack of such images from our society only has to do with the lack of public executions, and not with higher moral standards. During the public lynchings in the US of the early 20th century quite a few photographers made good money by taking pictures of members of the crowd. Even postcards of these events were produced and sold.
Today, almost everyone carries a camera and many people are inclined to document almost everything they encounter. If there would be public executions in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, there would certainly be images of them on Instagram.
How to die the right fashion?
I always wonder, how far our visual training has taken us. With a smartphone in easy reach such a huge chunk of humanity, almost all of us have become image creators. But far longer have we been consuming and reading images.
Hundredandsixtysomething years for the medium of photography might be a short period of time in the big scope of human history, but on a personal level, we do not work like this. Not a single person alive has met someone that has not grown up in the age of images as a form of mass communication. (I am ignoring those rare encounters with remote tribes made first contact in the last few decades.)
Movies try to recreate human interaction and behavior. But they also teach us interaction and behavior.
It has always been true, that most of a person’s knowledge is not based on his own experience, but on experience that others have made and that has been shared. That was true in the age of the hunter-gatherer and it is true today. What has changed is that, today, more and more knowledge comes with images attached. The hunter-gatherer might have heard the tales of far and distant lands, but we feel we have been there, since the images we have encountered have become part of our own memories.
My mother has never been on a plane. And she has never traveled outside Germany, Switzerland and France. But as an avid TV consumer, if you’d ask her, she would certainly have an apparent knowledge of many places around the world. Hell, I know what a volcanic eruption looks like. Have I ever seen one in person? Well no, but I have been taught how it looks and I am quite certain to recognize one, when I see it.
It might be relatively evident, which things we know, that we have never really encountered ourselves. I am phrasing this slightly vague, since our visual knowledge of things we have really encountered is also a mixture of personally experience and tales told. I have seen the Eiffel Tower on several occasions, yet the picture I have in mind is most certainly not one that is solely based on my personal gaze.
But it becomes really vague, if we talk about behavior and interaction. How many of the soldiers that die on the battlefield, unconsciously recreate in their last moments stuff they have learned through movies and TV? Like, “tell my family….”. Maybe I am completely misguided and there is something in our genes, that makes us act this way, when we die. But I highly doubt it. I think it is cultural training and much of that, today, comes to us through media.
So, what should be the most personal event possible, also becomes a ritual. Thinking back, when visiting my later father-in-law at his deathbed, I almost expected theatrical last words from him. Of course, he was too sick. And at the time, I had other things to think about, then the botched movie ritual. But later I came to realize that something had been missing.
The glitter Taliban
When comparing three or four year old Islamist propaganda from sources connected to ISIS and sources connected to al Qaeda the differences were somewhat striking. Even back then, ISIS propaganda was extremely posh and fancy. Yet, the al Qaeda propaganda was somewhat lacking behind.
Not the cool special forces outfits. Not the paramilitary drill. Not the action scenes normally found in Hollywood blockbuster movies. And exactly that might the point. What seems off with this propaganda, is the fact that it barely resembles the propaganda we normally encounter, when watching TV or going to the movies. This certainly has to do with the fact that much of this kind Western media has never reached the religious parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it is precisely here, where many of the recruits for al Qaeda and the Taliban come from.
They have not come to expect the propaganda to look the way a Hollywood movie would depict a powerful group of fighters.
It looks as if local traditions and fashion are far more important to them than the latest style of military gear. Certainly, as deadly as ISIS fighters, sometimes it is difficult not to chuckle looking at these images.
On the other hand, ISIS media operatives apparently have seen a ton of Western propaganda. So much so, that their visual language is mostly indistinguishable from what the West might produce. Of course, there were many Western fighters amongst their ranks that brought along their visual culture. But Iraq and Syria themselves were not disconnected from Western media, the same way, a remote and religious area of Afghanistan might have been. People, growing up in the 80s or 90s in Syria and Iraq, most certainly know their way around in Hollywood.
But from this difference in appearance, we can read how much Islamist propaganda is actually a response to the prevalent visual language. Many ISIS videos could be classified as music videos without music – since the use of music is prohibited. Others appear more mundane and boring and better resemble documentaries. But the genres in general seem quite clear and well known.
Over time though, the propaganda emanating from the Hindukush (and in lower quantity from Yemen) has changed drastically. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seemed to have faced a dilemma. On one hand, making the propaganda look to Western would be a kind of moral defeat on the other hand, they were losing the war over global attention against media outlets associated with ISIS. And more attention means more recruits and more money donated to the cause.
It is still relatively easy to say which side of the struggle a certain video comes from. Especially looking at the way graphic violence is depicted (ISIS) or is not depicted (al Qaeda) and looking at some cultural hints, like certain ways to dress and so on. But they are much more similar than before. Both sides now show SWAT team like military training. Both sides show off military gear and equipment. And both sides pay more attention to fast cuts and appealing action scenes.
An interesting case is the use of remote controlled video drones to document suicide attacks with cars (VBIEB for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device). The drone flies some distance away from the car and records the explosion. Quite often these videos also show the unsuccessful attempts to stop the car by opposing forces. Many attacks fail, but naturally, these failures rarely make it into the final cut of the propaganda video. If you want to see the failed attacks, you have to look for the successful prevention of these attacks in the propaganda of the respective opponent.
The first use of remote controlled video drones – without the suicide attack – I have seen, was from Russian “journalists” operating embedded within Assad troops. These videos were showing the destruction the war has caused and successfully liberated neighborhoods and towns. Very quickly though these drones were adopted to document attacks and in this way, they were mostly used by ISIS. The first encounters with these videos left me pretty speechless. The image quality was brilliant, and the footage was something I had never seen. It really gave the impression of a true birds view on an actual battlefield. With this brutal clarity, the attack seemed even more cunning than if it were filmed from the ground.
That must also have been the reaction of Islamist forces in opposition to ISIS. Because quite quickly, other groups in Iraq and Syria adopted the same kit to document suicide attacks. And quickly more of the attacks shown were filmed by drones than from the ground. Maybe because drones are hard to find in Afghanistan or maybe there were some resentments against the use of these cameras, but it took the Taliban almost a year to visually catch up. But in the end, they did. And now even in Afghanistan attacks are filmed using drones.
So, propaganda, it turns out, has become a fast-paced arms race. Technology changes very quickly and the needs and wants of the online audience forces propagandists to adopt. That way it is not different from other forms of advertising. It is interesting to me to see, how the Internet dictates even the inner workings of Islamist propagandists. Even though they wish to promote an unchanging religious set of values, that is 1400 years old – at least that is their claim -, they have to change the way they transport the message constantly. The audience demands it, or otherwise it is going to click on another link.
Most of us might know Robert Capas famous image of a dying Spanish soldier during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. I am aware that there is some debate on the authenticity of this image, but let’s just – for the sake of my arguments – assume that the image does show the precise moment this soldier is being killed. Robert Capa, in his role as a war photographer, was certainly hoping to take images like this one, but the image itself wasn’t something he was able to plan. He was just at the right place at the right time to document this event.
Even the images of the attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York were more or less results of chance encounters. The al Qaeda operatives, involved in the planning and execution, would certainly have hoped to create images, but they relied on cameras already filming (tourists and surveillance cameras) or news crews gathering to record the aftermath of the attack. They did not set up their own cameras. Nor was this the case for most of the other terror attacks of the early 2000s that made the headlines.
The conflict in Syria can be seen as part of the Arab Spring series of popular uprisings. In these struggles social media like Twitter and Facebook played an important role from the very beginning. When people went to the streets in protest, the took with them their phones to share images and videos with the world. The same happened in Syria. When the peaceful struggle became the Syrian Civil War, people kept recording and sharing. And when protesters became combatants, the filming of protests became war photography and propaganda. Maybe two years into the conflict, there was a noticeable shift. For quite a while, suicide attacks had been filmed with cellphones and the propagandistic use of images of executions was quite limited.
More and more, cell phone cameras were replaced by more professional equipment. And the filming of attacks was planned more carefully. It became clear that the production of images for the use in propaganda videos had become a crucial element in the planning of attacks. Cameras were not aiming in the general direction of the oncoming attack, but many videos were carefully framed. To an extent, where one might wonder, whether some targets might have been chosen not for their military value, but for their visual appeal.
Images are not a by-product anymore, but rather a key element in the struggle. This changes everything.
The dramatic shift is especially visible in videos that show the work of snipers. These videos are one of the many sub-genres of propaganda that come out of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These videos pretend to show the successful work of snipers from their own point of view. Of course, these videos are part of the propaganda and therefore their authenticity can never be fully trusted, nor will they ever be impartial. But it is quite clear that at least some of these videos in fact do show the “successful” killing of people. Whether these are enemy fighters or innocent bystanders is not important here.
People are killed to produce images. Of course, the sniper waits for the person with the camera to tell him that the camera is recording. Of course, he waits for the victim to enter the field of view of the camera, before he pulls the trigger. This is not the view of a person like Robert Capa, who tried to document the brutality of war. Here, the only “successful” kill is one that produces an image that can be used for propaganda purposes. It does not matter, whether the person killed really poses a threat or not.
The same is true for videos that show executions. Many people are killed for their deaths to be used in propaganda videos.
It is interesting to see this drastic shift so clearly in organizations (ISIS and al Qaeda), that historically were extremely negative towards the use of images altogether. Not long ago, Islamists in Afghanistan actively prosecuted photographers for breaking aniconic rules. And now, they themselves are producing propaganda videos and release them to the public. This might be a hint, that it isn’t necessarily the propagandist who decides on the way propaganda evolves. Maybe it is rather the collective audience that pushes certain developments. With view counters and user statistics, the Internet makes it possible for the viewer to leave a feedback to the creator of content, whether he is aware of that or not.
The Problem of the new
When YouTube celebrity Paul Logan shocked parts of the internet community by filming and mocking a dead person in Japan, this seemed to cross the line for many people. He and his team had been roaming a forest in Japan, that has gained some notoriety, for the high number of people going there to commit suicide. Clearly, he was hoping to find a corpse, and in the end, he was lucky in that respect. YouTube tried to counter the outrage, this video caused, by briefly restricting Logan’s ability to monetize his content on their platform. Only briefly though. Did this hurt Paul Logan? Not really. Especially not amongst his key audience. The video that caused so much outrage has now been viewed over 50 million times and the number of subscribers of his channel keeps growing.
Logan is following one of the simpler rules of the Internet. You want to be noticed? Then break the rules and make that public. Do something that shocks people and they will watch and listen. It is the same set of guidelines that is followed by ISIS in many of their most brutal videos.
But this also creates some problems. The audience, that is eager to follow you, expects you to constantly repeat your stunts with more and more audacity. It is not your amazing set of skills or your magnificent creativity that makes people watch your videos, but rather it is your ability to provide something that appears to be new and bold.
After the outrage over the mocked corpse had settled down and a short while after a show of public apology, Logan released another video, in which he tasered two dead rats. Bad taste? Certainly. But neither all that creative nor all that bold – maybe mostly desperate. But how would one go about to surpass the hype created by you mocking a corpse? To Logan the options are quite limited, since killing someone seems to be not an option. Ending up on death row or on a life sentence would certainly make the news, but keeping up the hype and benefiting from it afterwards would be rather tricky.
ISIS on the other hand can kill people. It is quite normal for this group to kill. So why not film it and make it a propaganda thing? When these videos appeared at first, they were extremely shocking. They were showing real murders on camera, something our mass media normally would not show us. Videos like these might have been found before already in the deepest depths of the Internet. On some gore sites like theync.com and maybe someone managed to sneak something into a 4chan /b. But these videos always appeared to be shot on accident or by someone who was having other priorities than to film someone being murdered.
The ISIS propaganda came as a shock. And it became an instant blockbuster on schoolyards in many Western countries.
But the Internet dictates, that the new does not stay new for long. Your audience might admire you for the furour you create, but most of them are very loosely attached to you and your cause. You have to keep them entertained for them to stay focused.
The propagandists of ISIS and Co face a dilemma. They created an audience by producing videos that were deliberately violating social norms, by showing violence in a taboo braking way. This has created a lot of response, both from other media and the audience. Hype is gone as quickly as it comes, yet hype is addictive. And the Internet works by its own set of rules. It does not matter, whether you are a YouTube star, that dreams of a bigger house and more women, or a group of Jihadi fighters, trying to promote a social agenda from the 7th century BC. You want to be noticed and want to enjoy the short high only hype can provide? Than follow the rules of the online community.
I must say, that I find the thought very soothing, that even jihadi fighters have to agree to the terms and services of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
This might explain, why execution videos changed over time. More attention is paid to the setting. The camerawork has become more professional. More shots from different angles. Etcetera. But most astonishingly, the violence itself has changed. In the beginning, the decapitations were a relatively swift matter, shootings were done quickly. Later, the whole thing turned to butchery. Sometimes quite literally, by hanging the victims upside down from hooks, cutting their throat, letting them bleed out. Just like a butcher would do it. These videos constantly try to reinstate the feeling terror, that caused people to talk about them in the first place.
Shooting a hostage just does not cut it anymore. Nowadays you have to shoot in groups, burn, blow up, use shotguns and slow motion. You have to deliver something unseen before, to make the news. To the victims, of course, this is terrible. They become objects of perverted content creators. Much of this increase in violence is driven by an urge to create something new. And it appears to me that there are even persons killed, whose death normally would not be justified, unless someone needed some victims to create a video. If you constantly need to create new shocking videos, featuring the murder of your opponents – well maybe you become somewhat desperate to find opponents that are really worthy to die in the most terrible fashion. Maybe you let your standards slip slightly, just to be able to declare more people enemies of the level.
That is not to say that all there is to ISIS propaganda are the killings. That isn’t true. But many of the most brutal ones share some traits with viral advertising. Viral ads try to make us listen to an extremely bland message of “buy this”, by wrapping the message in an outer shell that is unexpected or outrageous, funny or just amazing. ISIS videos are, at the core, as bland as the sales pitch for a car insurance. Maybe even blander, since many of the ideas propagated are extremely old and remote from a reality in which the Internet exists and in which every imaginable content is just a few clicks apart.
The brutality is the shell, that makes to message easier to swallow. Many of the mayor jihadi video productions are truly wrapped in viral content. At the beginning, you see some flashy intro, maybe some fighting and some battles, then comes the boring part, where you someone explains the boring details of the world view of the group and the execution at the end serves as your reward for staying focused. Really, not that different from a sales pitch for a car insurance.
But once the appeal of the facade wears off, it becomes all too clear how desperate the middle part sounds. This would not necessarily affect the true believers, but the propaganda tries to recruit new people and that becomes much harder, once people lose interest.
If we compare the two images on the previous pages, we can see two persons playing the same role. One is working for ESPN, a big US TV station that focusses on sports, the other an operative for a group that associates itself with ISIS. But both act in a similar fashion and even though, he might lack the standard business suit, the ISIS guy even has the ISIS logo on a small cube attached to his microphone. Over the course of the two videos snippets, both men perform very similar looking interviews.
The ESPN journalist talks to an American Football player and the ISIS guy to a group of people in cages, that are burned alive after the interview.
The last detail makes the whole thing fall apart. Why would someone clumsily act like a journalist, just to perform some mock interviews with a group of men that are killed in such a horrifying way shortly after?
How should he do it otherwise? If we turn on TV, we can see that it is really difficult, to come up with a unique visual language, that is still comprehensible. Some people try, and almost all of them fail miserably. To play it safe, it is easiest to just reuse the codes and sings already in use. Everyone does it. The ISIS guy isn’t influenced by the guy from ESPN, rather both follow the same lead. Neither is truly authentic, but that might not matter.
Not everyone that uses spoken language has to reinvent it constantly. Why should that be any different, if it comes to images? The media dictates how a story is best told and therefore the jihadi journalist or the Taliban-made TV studio actually make sense. It feels absurd though, to watch Islamists call for the “death of the West”, while at the same time following stereotypes invented by and for Western media. A typical example would be an attack in Kabul by a group that associated itself with the Taliban. The attack was aimed at a TV station and four people working there were killed. Shortly after the attack a press release was issued by the Taliban, claiming responsibility for the attack. The press release, of course, was aimed directly at media outlets like the one that had just been attacked.
One might call for the destruction of all media, but to reach the public, this call should best go through as many media outlets as possible. It is very similar to populist politicians, that seem to complain about “fake news” every single time, they are being interviewed on TV.