The Icon becomes an Icon by declaring it an Icon

IconicIcon

I find it interesting, that it takes media today just a couple of hours to declare an image of a terrible event “iconic” and then to discuss the iconic nature of said image. The attacks on Brussels took place March 22nd and the first version of this article ran the same day. Normally one would say, that “only time can tell”, but here things seem different. Maybe this would be another example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since by declaring an image “iconic” it becomes iconic – especially if this is done by important media outlets like Time.

It might be that this was one of the first readily available images of this event – and maybe one of the first of a decent quality. As the story is told, it was taken with a phone by a Georgian news reporter who just happened to be at the airport, when the attack took place. But to then declare this image the defining image of the whole event – that leaves a slightly weird sensation with me. I get it, that the news cycle get shorter and shorter, and once you produce a news article today, there is an urgent need for images. But by declaring one of the first images you get your hands on to be definite, you almost declare the story to be fully told. There is nothing else to be seen, so lets all move on.

This image here does not really strike me that much. That is personal taste and maybe this IS the image that captures the event best. But once a site like Time declares it iconic, everyone seems to want to use it as well and that leaves less room for other images to show. And less room for us as a group to find the defining image that describes this event, the way it felt to us.

ISIS reacts to ISIS

Father

I came across this recently uploaded ISIS video. Its style is part documentary, part storytelling. It tells the story of a young by, 12 years maybe, who blows himself up in a car bomb attack. As If this were not brutal enough, he is assisted by a guy who seems to be his father.

There is one quite interesting piece of footage towards the end of the video. It shows father and son riding in a car on the way to the battlefield – i.e. the rigged car the boy is going to kill with. The father, sitting in the passenger seat with a laptop on his lap is watching another ISIS propaganda video, apparently as part of the preparation for the coming attack. Maybe as justification as well. The boy watches the video over the fathers shoulder. So when a propaganda video serves as evidence or justification for another propaganda attack, that is a circle I think is strange.

Often this self-reference can be seen in other videos as well, but most of the time it is done by using footage from other – apparently well known videos – inside the new video. Very often this footage is in black and white or altered in other ways to give it the appearance of a flashback. Sometimes, you can see groups of people watching other recent propaganda films and being interviewed for the new video afterwards.

But in this case, the video seems to trigger a direct and violent reaction. Of course it is staged, but the way this is done is quite interesting. It is as if the person who created this video wants to convince the audience – and maybe himself too – about the power these videos can have. Videos like the one the viewer is watching at the moment this statement is made.

Computer

Another interesting example would be this still from another video. It starts with this scene shown here. A young man at a computer looking at Islamist social media sites. The next scene shows a group of soldiers arriving in what looks like the land occupied by the Islamic State. There they are happily greeted by guys carrying weapons. Later the fighters who just arrived are trained and then you see them fight – one unfortunate soul has to blow himself up with a car.

But again, the video in a way references to itself by showing some of the material the audience is encountering while watching the video. But the first video, the one with the young suicide bomber, goes even one step further. After the attack, the father figure, is back in the car, back on the computer. Just this time it appears as if he is using the computer to feed the events that just have happened back into the propaganda machine. So the endless circle of self referencing continues.

Car Computer

 

 

Filming Aniconism

I might repeat myself, when I briefly point out the two following images, but since I find this whole topic extremely fascinating, I might as well do. In the first picture you can see five ISIS fighters during a staged exercise, all wearing action cameras on their heads. The whole video is mostly shot for the camera and part of the normal propaganda one can expect from these sources. But still, you see quite a lot of battle footage that is obviously shot with similar cameras. It just looks somewhat absurd. And the more so, if you compare this with another still from another recent ISIS video. Here you see some guys painting over advertising portraits. The fact that the face of the lady on the left is censored seems almost like the normal thing one can expect in this setting. But the fact that the two other faces (both male) are censored as well, shows that this censorship goes beyond the “regular” misogynistic prohibition of the female image and more towards the aniconistic tradition of some radical versions of Islam. Aniconism, or the religious prohibition of depicting sentient beings, has definitely followers amongst islamists, but filming the act of enforcing this god given rule on video, makes the whole thing appear very strange. Keep in mind that the Taliban were killing photographers for breaking this interpretation of the law. Today, they might still kill people for the same reason, but I guess that this would be filmed and the result would end up on Youtube. It is really about a power struggle and not so much about religious believes. Filming aniconism…. well that is definitely something.

Five Gopros

Aniconism

Poor Man’s Cruise Missile

The changes in media representation of war and the changes in propaganda, altered the presentation of these suicide attacks. With the widespread availability of mobile phones, it seems as if no one blows himself up anymore without several cameras filming. And the increasing video quality of modern smartphones, increases the quality of these videos as well. But in recent months more and more videos appeared that went beyond hand held cameras and towards the use of small, remote controlled drones to document these attacks.

You don’t see the car or truck driving away anymore and some time later an explosion somewhere in the distance, but rather these drones are following the vehicle on its course through the landscape until its point of detonation. Very often one can see small explosions left and right of the vehicle – apparently attempts of stopping the attack -, or soldiers running away from the coming carnage. The image below is from one of these videos. In the center is the compound that is been attacked. To left of it, highlighted by me, is the truck with explosives on board. In the end, the truck is going to reach its target, blowing up the whole compound.

Poor Man's Cruise Missle

It might be, because the aesthetics of these videos is quite new, but it appears to me the the strangeness of this material goes beyond their mere newness. Whoever takes these videos and publishes them, tries to emulate the idea of a striking airplane. This becomes even more obvious, when video-game-like markings are added to these videos, as seen below. Of course these markings have nothing to do with the real avionics of the drone, the video was shot with, rather it try to make the footage easier decipherable. The audience of these videos has learned through computer games, media representation and movies, what the footage from a attack plane or drone is supposed to look like.

Poor Man's Cruise Missile 2

It interesting though, when you compare these videos with the ones released by the US military to document their “successful” air strikes. For some reason, the quality is much worse. That might be because the planes and drones are flying at a much higher altitude, but I guess the main reason might be censorship. The quality is made crap on purpose and even the flight informations, the ones ISIS form time to time adds to its videos to appear more authentic are hidden. These videos by the US military are not supposed to show anything, rather they are meant to just represent themselves. We have grown accustomed to the way such videos are supposed to look and therefore they can look the way they do. These videos are meant as mere illustration of the things, the PR department tells us they do show. It would be difficult anyway to confirm that the claim that is “proven” by these videos is true or false. This might be why, these videos can so easily be recycled on the Internet. The same video can be used to show a drone strike in Afghanistan or a plane attack in Yemen. It does not really matter. These drone strike videos function as a blank canvas for whatever story you wish to tell. But even this blank canvas makes things appear more authentic.

Drone Strike

Of course the ISIS videos of wish-to-be drone strikes do not reveal too much. But I think that the quality of these videos does make a difference. Even though the ISIS videos might be as censorship-laden as the videos released by the Americans, the censorship in the high quality, posh videos is far less visible and so they appear to be more honest. Plus their sexiness is definitely much higher to the audience they are aiming for.

Media Brothers

A very short Blog entry.

I found this image in one of the most recent terror videos I was watching.

ISIS Battle

In a way, it shows some of the strange aspects of these videos in one frame combined. For once, the guy in the center went into battle with a GoPro camera on his head. Actually I am wondering how many of these cameras were sold to the different fractions of the war in Syria and Iraq, because everyone seems to use them. There is even a channel, that until a year ago, uploaded quite a number of videos to Youtube, where cameras had been attached to the barrels of Syrian Army tanks, showing the destruction of whole neighborhoods. Oddly, all the videos where named “ Tank with GoPro™” + the location where the video was shot … why the “™”-symbol? Are they afraid of getting sued? It would be a funny development, when it turned out, that the Syrian government is more afraid of getting sued for violating a trademark, than for committing crimes against humanity. Well, in the end, the punishment might be harsher indeed.

Tanks with GoPro

But action cameras – GoPro or others – can be found in many videos. Some of the execution scenes are even shot by a whole barrage of them, from multiple viewpoints. It might be, that they are able to withstand the harsh environment better than regular cameras, but I believe that it has a lot to do with a certain look these videos have. And this look is the thing these propaganda producers are aiming for. Placed on the ground, it might look like a scene from a music video, strapped to your head, you get the appearance of ego shooters. Again, I believe the main audience for these videos are young men, who know this kind of aesthetics all too well.

The other thing that strikes me with the first image, is the appearance of the dead soldier on the right. Even though I should be used to that right now, what still gets me, is the way his body is censored. It is not his head wound, that is deemed insensitive – sure, that is quite hard to see in this frame anyway, but believe me, there are other shots in this video, that present closeups of his utterly destroyed face – what is censored instead, is his naked back. It is like the ISIS equivalent of a nipple slip. There are parallels to be drawn between the moral standards of fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, at least if you are looking at their treatment of images. In the United States, I have encountered quite a few vans by Christian anti-abortionists that were completely covered with images of aborted fetuses. But imagine their reaction to an image of nude breasts. Censorship is weird, and it keeps getting weirder, the more images we use.

And then there is this still from the same video. It shows two different guys. This time, both have GoPros on their heads, to document the suicide there are heading for. In fact, both are going to be killed. So in the midst of battle, in this shot alone, there are at least three cameras filming.

ISIS Gopro

Plus, am I the only one, who thinks the term “Media Brother” is very strange.

Censorship as a story telling device

The excuse for censorship is normally, that there is a need to follow certain moral or cultural guidelines. Information or images are thought to be dangerous and therefore access has to be limited. Of course different groups or organizations follow different, and sometime opposing, sets of rules. Censorship has become an important aspect in todays power struggles.

In its most extreme form, censorship should be invisible. Since what is shown (I am focusing on images here) is deemed dangerous, the most consequent way to deal with it, would be just not to mention it at all. A damnatio memoriae for images or thoughts. And a lot of censorship today is actually invisible. Watching most ISIS videos, one could get the impression that women do not exist. Or most airstrikes by the US military leave no visual trace that is accessible to the public. But why not all of them? Sure, sometimes censorship isn’t perfect, so some information dodging the filter seems unavoidable, but I am talking about instances, where, otherwise avoided material, is published through the regular channels.

Of course, ISIS isn’t just releasing a video that shows a group of women without being veiled. That would be too obvious – and from their perspective too extreme. Things are rather more subtle and definitely more complex. Take this image “depicting” Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton

Sure, her face and even her hands are blurred and therefore censored. But this I would call pseudo censorship. Real censorship would avoid her image all together. Here, even though it is not quite obvious that this is Hillary Clinton, the fact that the image is depicting a women and therefore something prohibited becomes even more visible through blurring it. So on one side, the ISIS censor could claim that he did not show a woman and therefore hasn’t been breaking the rules. But by clearly pointing at the fact that a women is shown in the original image, a women is in fact made the topic of the image. And this might be the core statement ISIS wants the audience to understand.

Tunisia

Another example would be this one, from the Tunisian parliament. The thing you wish to present, but are not allowed to show, can be made even more visible by censoring it.

PopeBut it also possible to make things appear to be repulsive, by censoring them, even though the image itself wouldn’t be an issue. Take for instance this image sowing Pope Francis and Benjamin Netanyahu. Obviously the two women next to them had to be blurred, but the painting in the background is treated the same way. My first thought was that this painting might show women and was therefore blurred. Christian paintings are quite often seen in such videos before they are being destroyed, so the painting itself should otherwise be of no concern.

Perugino Resurrection

It was interesting to find that the painting in fact does not depict any women in the foreground – there are two angels of undefined gender, but not in the part shown in the still image used by ISIS. So censoring something where there is no need to censor, has the power to alter the perceived content of an image.

But not only ISIS uses censorship as a way tochange the content of images. In fact the more I look for that, the more it seems that this is part of contemporary image usage. I briefly tried to deal with this issue in my project “Reporting the Pain of Others”. But I might have to put some more effort in this topic – right now I am not that happy with the result.

Reporting

From top to bottom, ABC News, Al Jazeera and TMZ.com.

In 2010 a short video became public that showed US soldiers urinating on Taliban fighters they have just killed. The video went viral and every important news website had to feature it. Since the whole story was based on one very short video taken with a mobile phone, all the news outlets had access to, was the same shitty footage everyone else was using. Since everyone was reporting on the same story, using the same footage, the pictures presented on the websites should have been indistinguishable from one another. But was not what happened. Most sites felt obliged to censor these images, but the way they were censored varied widely. Keep in mind, that the footage was so bad, that in fact no penis could be seen. Even the identity of the perpetrators or the victims isn’t that clearly visible, I would say. Still, everyone used these images and the way they were censored tells quite a story. Some news sites thought it is their duty to protect the identity of the victims, or hide the bloody corpses from view. Others apparently wanted to protect the identity of the killers and left the bruised bodies uncensored. And others still – and that I find interesting – are censoring penises that are actually not visible in the available footage. Some even mark the sport with “Explicit Content”, which I think is very similar to the strategy in the ISIS videos described above. Something that is actually not visible in an image can be made very visible, by pretending censorship was needed. All with the excuse so not to enrage the audience. But the black bar covering something that is not there, or the label “explicit content” first create the platform for this specific anger. Censorship, used in this way, can alter the perceived content of an image in exactly the direction, that it seems as if censorship was necessary. Censorship can create the content it pretends to eliminate.

Upon closer inspection, one can find other examples, where pseudo censorship is used to alter the content the way it is supposed to be taken by the audience. Take these two images from the website of the British Daily Mirror.

Daily Mail

A similar story is told, one about executions of foreign hostages by Mohammed Emwazi (nicknamed Jihadi John). In one case, the identity of the two hostages was protected in the other case the identity of the single hostage wasn’t. It is quite obvious that no real moral considerations did come to play here, otherwise both images would have been treated equally. So the decision to blur or not to blur must have had more to do with the narrative the journalists were aiming for.

Even more obvious and perverted is this example of another British news site express.co.uk . Here in two different articles, the same victim is shown. Once “protected”, the other time his face to be seen. Just as you need it to tell your story.

Express

Weird Role Models

Reporter

I have this image. Well it is part of one of my current projects and as you can see it consists of two parts. I called my project Islamist Role Models, but maybe I should change that to just Role Models.

While watching a whole bunch of propaganda videos by islamist groups, it struck me that even though they are fighting the West and threaten our lifestyle, these videos are full of gestures and poses all too well known from our own media environment. At first I was astonished by this finding, but the more I think about it, the more natural it seems. Of course these people grew up with a similar media imprint to ours – watching Bruce Lee movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Hollywood and the media played an important role in their upbringing, even though they might have grown up in a different culture, with a different set of moral rules and guidelines. And in fact, many of the people involved in the production of these videos did in fact grow up in the West.

It is just somewhat strange, when you encounter statements by these groups that truly hate the West and everything that originates there and you see them posing in a Hollywood style. Or you see them killing accused “polytheists” and on the other hand practicing martial arts – I am not a Muslim cleric, but karate is most certainly not halal. Channeling energy and chi points and shit, well there is certainly no mention of that in the Quran.

Some of the poses just look ridiculous when performed by islamist fighters. Like jumping through burning hoops, parkour jumps or creating human pyramids with someone waving a flag on top. Strange ideas of masculine gestures. Or these weird huddles, where a huge group of men come together in circle to swear loyalty to a common cause. Something more often seen in sports, with a slight touch of homo-eroticism, but which seems to be part of the typical gestures of the US military as well.

Other scenes are almost impossible to distinguish from those in the media. For instance fighters training swat team like operations. Or snipers hiding in the bushes, apparently waiting for the kill. But this I find slightly more complex. Since Hollywood or TV studios create an appearance of how they think a swat team operation has to look, or what a sniper does while waiting and that then is reproduced by actual swat teams or snipers – at least this is what I believe. The whole thing is a circle of trying to act in a way that looks right, repeated by everyone involved.

So back to the image above. Oddly, both guys, the ESPN guy and the ISIS guy, are in fact acting in a way they think a reporter is supposed to act. Both are following the same role model. I find the detail fascinating, that someone made a small cube with an ISIS logo and some scotch tape that went on the microphone – because apparently that is what you need to be a true journalist on TV. Exactly the way children would play being on TV. The whole thing then brakes apart and becomes very evil, once you realize that the people the ISIS journalist interviews are burned alive afterwards. Cameras still recording. But still, his appearance has to look like the appearance of a journalist on CNN.

Mid January 2016, a suicide bomber hit a TV station in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing seven staff members. A day later a group within the Taliban claimed responsibility by publishing a press release. This press release did look exactly like any other and was meant to be published by the same category of media that was targeted by the blast. So if you want to be a terrorist, you have to blow up media outlets, but on the other side, you also have to act like a PR department would do.

One thing I noticed with propaganda videos coming out of Afghanistan is that they in fact do look somewhat different. Since these groups are now fighting for years in remote mountainous areas and access to media was always seen as something suspicious, the people creating these videos might actually not share our set media role models. At least that would be my theory. Many of these videos just show bearded guys sitting on the ground, talking. The whole interaction with the camera is just not right. And when you do see some training scenes or fighting and you see them trying to act out some of the masculine poses, it looks odd. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the struggle for attention by western media and western youth is actually won by ISIS over al-Quaeda. ISIS videos have by far more connection to our visual language and are therefore much more potent as propaganda.

ISIS Videos

In the past few months I watched many videos by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. That might not be the most tasteful of pastimes, but for me that I am extremely interested in the role images as a medium of communication play in our modern world, I consider it extremely important material. The more I look at these videos, the more details I see that are upon first notice quite baffling. I am very happy that almost all these videos are in Arab, so I am not distracted by that, plus, since their interpretation of Islam seems to be OK with slaughter shot in slow motion, but strictly opposes music, all you get on the audio spectrum is boring sounding singing. So there is little that distracts me from trying to look closely at these images.

The thing that did strike from the very beginning is that fact that these videos do exist at all. The most conservative interpretations of Islam – and ISIS definitely wants to be counted amongst them – has serious issues with the depiction of sentient beings. And some fifteen years ago, the Taliban in Afghanistan killed photographers for breaking this rule. (They also hired photographers to portrait their fighters it the most kitsch way possible – but that was supposedly for internal use only. Just google for “taliban portraits”). But ISIS wants to be oddly modern. So besides the war against the West, there is also a war amongst islamist groups that is prominently fought on social networks with the help of phones and GoPro cameras.

But the oddity of the whole situation does not stop here. Once the islamists were those who opposed the use and spread of images. Today that role is part of the western reaction to the (perceived) rising threat of terror. These videos are hard to find, sharing them is illegal and having them on your hard drive definitely causes suspicion. In the UK some kids already have been sentenced to time in jail for sharing propaganda PDFs. So the iconoclasm is turned on its head. Now these images are banned in the West.

It seems key to all sides involved in this conflict, what images are shown and what are censored. ISIS seems to have no issue with showing bodies blown to bits – even with those of their own comrades. Something western media would definitely not show. But once a boxer short is shown or – God forbid – a naked belly. ISIS propaganda kicks in and things get blurred. So quite often you’ll find that the boxer short is blurred but not the head-shot wound. And of course there are no women in ISIS videos. That is why, I guess, Germany is not so much in the focus of these propaganda videos than would normally be the case. Chancellor and defense secretary are both women – Merkel and von der Leihen – and are therefore off limits to even the most brutal film director.

But the other side – the West – censors in regard of its political and moral agenda. In fact the way ISIS produces these videos is hard to counter for the West. We have grown used to these kinds of wars being invisible. Drones and fighter planes seemed the weapons of choice and even though everything was carefully recorded on video, the results were classified top secret and hidden from view. So the audience became accustomed to the fact that there is nothing interesting going on, because nothing was to be seen. That strategy served as the basis for this whole conflict, the way the West intended to fight it. Hide the whole operation and pretend you are just after the bad guys. What better way to avoid the issue of collateral damage than to hide the whole thing?

ISIS on the other hand, does not care about collateral damage. The more the better. Shock is part of its propaganda machine. Shock might play a role in the US strategy of drone strikes, but that shock should be felt locally. “Shock and Awe” – the term used by the US military – is a local strategy. ISIS wants its shock to be felt everywhere. And of course it is intriguing to young men – maybe the most important audience group for ISIS -, to watch HD videos shot by remote controlled drone directly over some Syrian battlefield. If music were not banned by their interpretation, I am quite sure that many of these clips were set to Wagner or death metal. It does look like a video game, because these videos are directly inspired by a video game aesthetics.

I see another resemblance with video games. Might be hard to describe, but the way these videos become more and more brutal and the killings more and more “creative”, reminds me of a game sequel or the next horror movie within a certain franchise. A few months ago it might have been cool enough to shoot a poor guy in the head, but now the target audience wants more. Otherwise they are going to switch to another channel. Now you need at least a shotgun, or better still, you need to run over a guy with a tank. Or maybe shoot someone from close up with a rocket launcher.

It would be absolutely wrong to blame video games for any of that violence. Anger does not come from video games. Nor did it come through movies or books before. Media teaches us the way to express ourselves. And different mediums teach us different things. It is quite easy for someone who has never played video games or watched action movies, to blame them for the hard-to-understand way young people act. But it would be much harder for them to link the media they themselves consumed to the way they act within society. Young men are just angry and awkward and if they express this anger, they express it in a way media they have consumed taught them. Let’s forbid all video games and have young guys beat themselves to death with books instead.