Aesthetically effective?

This 40-second video, which is extremely graphic, shows the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha Sultan, allegedly shot dead by the Basij in Iran in June 2009.  Caution is advised. (Video via YouTube)

“Because they are dead, their story can be shaped in any way.” This simple, quintessential yet elusive distinction was at the core of Iranian-American Negar Azimi’s discussion of three iconic images that have forever marked the exposure of human rights abuses in Iran.

Speaking to an intimate crowd at the Beirut Art Center (BAC) on Wednesday, the senior editor of the nonprofit Bidoun Projects offered an interesting, albeit abridged, look at the aesthetic efficiency of images in raising awareness on human suffering.
The discussion titled “Iran in Pictures: Social Suffering and Three Sets of Images” is part of the BAC’s Revolution vs. Revolution exhibit, which runs through April 13.

Azimi drew on three famous photographs: the image of two allegedly Iranian homosexuals in the city of Masshad taken minutes before they were publicly hanged; the July 17, 1999 cover of The Economist of Iranian prisoner of conscious Ahmed Batebi; and the video image of the Green Revolution’s Neda Agha Sultan, who was shot dead during Iran’s 2009 post-election upheaval. She highlighted a number of issues to take note of in a time when images, thanks to the Internet, can be manipulated, but more dangerously, they can also spread like wildfire.

“Sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan,” Azimi quoted America’s legendary literary icon and political activist Susan Sontag as saying. But to what extent are images retouched and to what extent are they successful in yielding positive change, she asked.

Neither revealing a firm opinion on these points of contention nor refraining from offering a glimpse into her thoughts, Azimi shed light on both the context of the images and their impact on our understanding of the various narratives.

Azimi opened with the photograph of 16- and 18-year-old Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni respectively. Their public hanging in 2005 in Mashhad sparked outrage worldwide. Though accused by an Iranian court of having raped a 13-year-old boy, some argued that the teenagers were being executed for engaging in homosexual acts.

For others, the photo became symbolic of the greater struggle and dichotomy between Islamism and homosexuality, while prominent human rights organizations focused on the issue of capital punishment, said Azimi. She added that Iranian opposition groups used the image to forward their cause against the regime.

Focusing on the second image, the July 17, 1999  cover of The Economist, she showed how the media frenzy, which surrounded Iran’s now token prisoner of conscious Ahmed Batebi, made him anything from “Iran’s Johnny Depp”  to somewhat of a “shorthand for oppression.”

It’s almost as if these new icons are “robbed from their state of individuals,” and they are now nothing more than decoys, she said, referring to Thomas Keenan, an associate professor of Comparative Literature at Bard College who had warned against the risks of imagery over exposure.

Moving on to more recent events, Azimi stressed the role of Neda Agha Sultan also dubbed “the angel of Iran.” The 26-year-old Iranian was shot dead during the 2009 post-election turmoil in Teheran. The story of the music-loving philosophy student, allegedly killed by the Basij was captured by amateur videos and made for the single most viewed clip on YouTube during the week of the tragedy.

Azimi highlighted that in the summer of 2009, half of the global blogosphere buzzed about either of two main happenings: Iran’s Green Revolution or celebrity mortality as it was during that same month that the king of pop, Michael Jackson, and much-loved American actress Farah Faucet both passed away. So what do we have to say about the ambiguous blur between celebrity life and suffering in today’s modern age? Azimi did not give the answer, but left her audience with thoughts over which to ruminate.

Though it was a rather enticing presentation, the discussion was kept to a minimum, perhaps because of Azimi’s rather academic discussion, which might have proved to be a bit intimidating.

Regardless of how they were used, the images were definitely “successful,” concluded Azimi, adding that her insight was also meant to address the promiscuity of the Internet today.

BAC Assistant Director Stefan Tarnowski told NOW Extra he was happy with the event’s turnout, stressing that Azimi provided an interesting outlook on the subject given her engagement in the field as well as the fact that she is an Iranian expat.

For more information on the BAC’s exhibit, please visit the Beirut Art Center’s website here.

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