Cell Phone Videos, Mobilizing Shame and the Image collisions


This is the fourth and final research note from Shaunak Sen, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

 

When Peter Gabriel and his colleagues developed the platform Witness, briefly after the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, one of its founding questions was “what if every human rights worker had a camera in their hands? What would they be able to document? What would they be able to change?” [1].

More cell phone videos have been shot, edited and uploaded online in the last 16 hours then the total number of films and TV shows produced in India in the year 1989. Cell phone videos in particular have had definitive impact in shaping much of recent contemporary history. From the ‘Arab Spring’, to Abu Ghraib to the Kajieme Powell killing to innumerable videos capturing mundane violence or corruption worldwide, cell phone videos are the dominant visible template of the real today. As video enabled cell phones increasingly become ubiquitous, various enduring questions around the moving-image get unsettled and reframed. In the first post I revisited an inaugural moment of video transparency in India, and sketched out a brief techno-material history of truth-construction over the previous decade [2]. In the second post following that I had looked at the concept of video forensics and large-scale intra-government stings (stings carried out by vigilance departments on other government officers ) [3]. In this post I look at some recent ‘citizen videos’ and try and nudge towards changing relationship between the (sting) video document and issues of ‘truth’, ‘shame’ and transparency.

Tahrir Square
Credit: Creative Time Reports.

A Thousand Small Eyes Taking on the Big Eye

Recently, various commentators have hinted at the crumbling of the long-standing monopoly on the representation of reality and heralded the surge of global citizen journalism [4]. The recent protests across Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia etc were marked by the sheer immediacy of the terra-bytes of image material generated by participants and onlookers. At the core of many of these uprisings, Lara Baladi suggests “photographing was a political act, equal in importance to demonstrating; it constituted civil disobedience and defiance of the regime” [5]. She claims that:

[The] camera became a nonviolent weapon aimed directly at the state, denouncing it. Photographing implied taking a stand against the regime; it was a way of reconquering territory and ultimately the country. Photographing meant belonging. Was image-making impacting the world and, if not changing it, shaking its order by helping people to rethink their relationship to political powers? … Protesters held above their heads signs and slogans by day, and the blue glowing lights of mobile phones, iPads and even laptops, by night. While signifying the demand for social justice and freedom, these devices were not only emanating a light of hope reminiscent of the dancing flames during the protests of the sixties; they were simultaneously absorbing the ambient light, thus recording from every possible angle, in every possible quality and format, life in Tahrir. [6]

If You See Something, Share Something
Credit: Media Bistro

Various initiatives like the If You See Something, Share Something app [7] or the NJ ACLU app [8] recognize the sheer potential of having millions of individual video archivists, and provide platforms that help in intelligently disseminating content. The hand holding up a phone has come to mean a variety of things today, and radical potential is seen immanent not only in the new kind of ‘archive fever’ it generates but its capacity as a ‘deterrent’. This notion is consistent with a major strand within human rights discourse commonly referred to as ‘Mobilization of Shame’.

The Sting Freelancer

The cell phone video arrived in India in what was a densely chequered media landscape with new sting operations baying for primetime attention everyday. After the uproar Operation Westend had caused, various news channels had scrambled to put together investigation teams – journalists equipped with covert camera artillery focusing on sting-based stories. By early 2000’s a whole sub-industry based on sourcing, executing and producing sting content was raging in New Delhi. Media firms which did not have dedicated investigation outfits would often outsource operations/stories to individuals specializing in this kind of content. These weren’t stringers or regular field reporters – these were individuals who would ordinarily own a sting camera (briefcases/ calendars/ button cameras) and claimed to have expertise in executing covert footage stories. They would both pitch and carry out leads – they would discover/propose their own stories or execute/produce video material based on editorial leads given by a media firm. Others would carry out covert video operations on their own, and then try and pitch the content to media organizations. These were largely lower middle-rung cameramen who switched to clandestine cameras once the sting-boom happened. Alongside this arose a number of manufacturers/shops that started dealing with sting operation equipment. A number of small shops in Daryaganj in the Old Delhi area, dealers in Lajpat Nagar, Laxmi Nagar till today specialize in ‘spycam fittings’ – lodging covert cameras in regular objects like shirts, vases, buttons, Bluetooth receivers etc. These shops also provide repair facilities, as well as consulting services for the kinds of optics to rent/purchase/design depending on the situation one expects one’s sting to be carried out in. The entry of the cell phone of course entirely changed the erstwhile narrative. One of the local dealers recounted:

The demand of spycams used to be very high till a few years ago. They would come with pictures of spycams being used abroad and ask us to make similar ‘fittings’. We do briefcase, shirts, buttons, Bluetooth and a number of things you would get shocked to see. Yes we would also sometime rent equipment – some of the journalists we knew well so we gave them for hire… A spycam today costs anywhere between 15-45,000 depending on how complicated a design you want. If you want a shirt where the camera-lens will not be seen even after checking, it’ll be custom-made and more expensive… Look cell phones changed a lot. Everyone was moving around with a spy-cam! Now the typical sting journalists don’t come so frequently anymore, that craze has gone. Now it’s mainly detective agencies, security teams etc.

Cell phones as the above account also indicates re-configured a number of factors in the existing sting economy. By 2007-2009, a number of news media platforms had upgraded their websites and embedded high resolution video players onto them. Operations were shifting primarily to web, personalized YouTube playlists and channels were created and a number of web channels with heavy video content were started. Tehelka Tv, Indian Express and a number of publications began video-based content – these included material shot by correspondents themselves. As Tehelka migrated to a new CMS, the focus largely shifted to integrated content – each story being supported by videos/photos/audiovisuals all produced by the lone journalist doing the story. By 2010 Tehelka distributed new high-resolution video-enabled cell phones to all its web journalists, and urged them to also generate video based content apart from just print stories. News channels began to source large amounts of video content from cell phone based material on platforms like Youtube or footage individually sent to them. Networks of erstwhile sources/lead-givers for journalists who included social right activists, NGO activists, lawyers, regional reporters, stringers all increasingly sent cell phone based video material as part of their pitches/story hooks. A number of stories of cops being seen accepting bribes, land mafia operations, ministers misbehaving with bureaucrats etc have been material amassed by these kids of stories. While the amount of real-footage increased within media platforms 2007-8 onwards, numbers of stings commissioned to sting freelancers dropped dramatically. Today many of the erstwhile specialist sting personnel have gone back to regular camera work or news coverage.

As the real-video content of media platforms burgeoned, so did the number of alleged ‘fake stings’/ reverse-stings, some of which even led to criminal cases. In early 2012, steel businessman and Congress MP Naveen Jindal released footage of a reverse-sting which showed two senior members of Zee TV (heads of Zee Business and Zee News, respectively) allegedly trying to extort an amount of 100 crores from him in exchange of not airing stories that connected his company to the ‘coalgate scam’ that was raging at the time [9]. In another popular instance two young reporters of TV9 channel were arrested while attempting to carry out a sting operation on a senior minister of the Karnataka cabinet. The minister later claimed that he knew from the beginning that the reporters were trying to entrap him and he played along before informing the Home minister and the police so he could “lay a trap for the journalist” [10]. In another infamous case, members of Live India TV were arrested after it was discovered that they staged a ‘sting video’, unfairly accusing a teacher in a government school in central Delhi of running a prostitution racket. It was discovered that the video featured not the teacher concerned but a young ‘aspiring journalist’ in agreement with other journalists from the outfit. The surfeit of sting based content in the media demanded more such material with great velocity and increasing numbers of media outfits struggled to generate material. The citizen sting video that was circulated in social media before it garnered currency enough to be broadcast in mainstream news stood in stark comparison to these ‘exclusive’ breaking stings that a number of big news channels aired.

The Hand that Holds the Phone

The idea that agents like governments, armies, corporates, and institutions are like individuals in a way that renders them vulnerable to feelings of “dishonour, embarrassment… or ignominy,” and are susceptible therefore to the power of public opinion has been a fairly widespread and deep-seated idea in human rights discourse [11]. Revelation and public scrutiny are core concepts here; and shame has endured for a while now as a potent weapon to make otherwise recalcitrant and unyielding institutions budge towards corrective/retributive action (ibid). The pervasive urban presence of the cell phone offers succour then to such a tradition which stresses on the political import in the very act of rendering acts visible and displaying them publicly. Two videos that have spiralled into veritable media events at the time of writing this post attest to this deterring potential of the cell phone.

The Rehman Malik Thrown of the Plane for being Late became instantly popular globally, as leading news portals like The Independent, BBC, The Daily Mail etc carried pieces on it, and a number of Indian news channels carried it on the primetime slot. The 5 minute long clip showed Pakistani Senator Rehman Malik and Dr Ramesh Kumar Wakwani (National Assembly Member), being forced to leave a flight by angry passengers claiming that the flight had undergone a two-hour delay because of the two ‘VIPs.’ The entire episode, where angry passengers first complain to the plane staff, then confront Rehman Malik (who walks off unapologetically) and then collectively force Dr. Ramesh Kumar to get off the flight is captured on two or three separate cell phone cameras. The aggrieved passengers are heard complaining to the plane staff “My foot VIP… no no no, We’ve taken it for too long. For 68 years. Are we going to take it for another 68 years?” When Malik first enters the plane dais we hear the cell phone recorder shouting ‘Malik sahab, sorry. You should go back. You should apologize to these passengers. You should be ashamed of yourself… 250 passengers have suffered because of you. It is your fault, sir.’ Soon after Wakwani is also ejected out of the plane as the passengers chant ‘shame shame’ in unison.

Screenshot from Rehman Malik video

The singularly striking thing is the sheer influence the fact of the recording is able to exercise on the proceedings. All assembled people are acutely aware of the multiple cell phones: the public servants appear overly punctilious while those recording seem to easily assume the role of upstanding citizens disgruntled by the unfair public practice. At the beginning of the clip, as the video recorder (presumably a middle aged English speaking man) inquires about the delay, the airline staff seem especially cagey to say anything in front of a live camera, and keep trying to placate the passengers – coaxing them to stop recording. Similarly, Dr. Ramesh finally acquiesces to disembarking the flight as a sea of cell phones surround him, each recording his reluctance to get off despite other passengers imploring him. And finally Rehman Malik seems to brazenly stride towards the plane entry up until the point he sees irate passengers recording him – he promptly turns about and walks away refusing to either face the waiting cell phones nor say anything besides “its not my fault”. The passengers on the other hand seem activated by an entirely different energy: the man holding the cell phone says he “wont leave them and will definitely grill them today” and that even though Malik is/was “a minister we don’t care anymore, we don’t care anymore”. While other passengers speak in the language of personal inconvenience (“I have to read files tonight, have a case to fight tomorrow”) the person recording speaks in the language of enraged citizenship. Soon as more cameras get whipped out by the time Wakwani takes his seat, a large part of the plane is shouting “shame shame” instead of venting personal anger. The fact that the video was a major player in the proceedings is evidenced by events that transpired after the clip went viral [12]. Ajrumand Hussain, the man recording the video was allegedly dismissed from his job without being given adequate reason, and the social network has speculated since that the presence of his cell phone in particular was seen as inciting and goading the passengers to act the way they did. The Rehman Malik clip is one among many videos about different kinds of misconduct that have surfaced over the last few years where the presence of the cell phone has directly intervened – be it in enabling the witness/recording agent or deterring the perpetrators of the misconduct. The presence of the cell phones clearly activates different strands of performativity, each agent in front of the cellphone trying to fit into a desired role for the phone archive.

Mobilizing Shame(s)

Mobilising Shame

But the presence of the cellphone camera also actuates other kinds of performances. Among the first to point towards the mutating shape of the camera-shame-performance matrix in the contemporary moment was Thomas Keenan. Citing an example from the coverage of the war in Kosovo in 1999, Keenan problematises the correlation between exposure (or bringing into the light as N Dilip Kumar from the previous post would say) and the corrective response it is presumed to trigger [13]. He talks of a specific scene where Serbian civilians are looting the deserted houses belonging to Albanians in the presence of a BBC crew – what strikes Keenan is the account of the news report that claims that one of the looters turns and waves at the camera crew present there [14]. For Keenan this is something of a groundbreaking moment in how we’ve come to understand the mobilizing shame discourse in human rights – it announced the “effective erasure of a fundamental axiom of the human rights movement in an age of publicity: that the exposure of violence is feared by its perpetrators, and hence that the act of witness is not simply an ethical gesture but an active intervention” [15]. Keenan notes that the whole idea of mobilizing “shame presupposes that dark deeds are done in the dark, and that the light of publicity—especially of the television camera—thus has the power to strike preemptively on behalf of justice. With a wave, these policemen announced their comfort with the camera, their knowledge of the actual power of truth and representation… Rather, the wave is an action, not only a fact to be revealed (although it is that as well) but an event that takes place, for the camera, as if to demonstrate to it, through it, something about it and its actual force in the world” [16].

Keenan is pointing towards contexts where instead of being a deterrent the camera is an active instigator for the perpetrator to perform his misconduct more self-consciously. The last few years have also witnessed the revelation of videos shot by army personnel where they are seen torturing people in front of a/for a camera – where the camera seems to enhance and prolong their acts. Similarly various molestation/rape videos are easily available for viewing on porn websites or even common video-sharing platforms where men can be seen violating women very consciously aware of (or even for) the camera shooting the act. Baudrillard’s term the ‘transparency of evil’, takes on newer leanings – it is the fact that their actions are not under the veil of darkness but within the folds of the transparent that makes them even more aggrandizingly performative [17]. The people in the videos want their actions to be recorded and archived.

A spate of citizen stings have surfaced in the recent years in India. Some of them going on to become full blown media-events eventually. Amongst the more popular in these were the AAP raid videos from Khirki Village.

India TV News
Credit: India TV News.

At midnight on the 16th of January 2014, then Minister of Law Somnath Bharti, along with party workers and camera crews visited the Khirki extension area of South Delhi in order to conduct raids on “Nigerians or Ugandans” who he alleged were members of a “prostitution and drug ring”. In a public showdown with the police (with ACP B.S Jakhar) Bharti demanded that the police conduct raids in houses of the area where different African nationals live. The police turned down the demand due to the absence of a requisite search warrant. Some of the African women have since claimed that they were forcibly apprehended while returning from a party. The assembled mob heckled and shouted at the women, keeping them captive inside the car for close to three hours. Other African women were forced to assemble at the point, cars, bags etc were checked rigorously, all in front of the TV camera crews that were present to cover the ‘live sting’. The controversy around the ‘event’ stretched on till much later as images of the ‘raid’ were present across TV screens, newspapers, internet platforms for days to come. Within a few days the Aam Aadmi Party posted a page called ‘the truth of khidki extension’ on their page. Interestingly this page contained no clips of the various videos/programs that different TV channels were showing repeatedly in the previous days – instead they posted a few ‘raw footage videos’ shot on cell phones. These were videos shot by people present during the ‘raid’ that allegedly contained ‘raw, unedited’ material that would help the party refute most of the accusations being leveled on Bharti on mainstream news channels.

The party’s faith in ‘raw, untouched’ cell phone videos as public evidence instead of well-produced TV content is obviously situated within the larger context from which the party emerged during the Delhi elections held in December 2013. Born largely out of the broad-scale information activism moment in India, the party pegged its mandate around the idea of transparency across all levels during the lead-up to the elections. The sting became an important vector of this vision as party leader Arvind Kejriwal exhorted citizens of Delhi to use their cell phones as a weapon to expose the corrupt.. During their time in power in Delhi, the sting video continued to be an important part of governance strategy: the government opened up anti-corruption helplines and advised citizens to send in audio-visual proof of instances of corruption. Members of the party has since distanced themselves from the actions of that night in Khirki. But the manner in which the Khirki videos were presented and circulated open up interesting directions via which we view images of truth and their relationship with shame.

The videos are part of a longer Youtube playlist uploaded by Ankit L,who handles the social media wing of the party. The small 2-3 minute cell phone videos are snippets of actions or conversations from the night called ‘One Woman Caught’ [18], ‘Trying to Hide Drugs’ [19], ‘Police Not Catching Victim’, ‘Naked in Front of Police’, ‘Condom and Liquid Spilled in the Private Car’ [20] and so on.

The raid has since been heavily criticized for its obvious racially charged vigilantism. Interesting here is to look at not so much the content but at the form and afterlife of these videos. These three videos seen together appear as a densely coded sequence – the chase, the interrogation and finally the forensics. Yet, the singularly striking thing about these videos are pure style – the audio is missing, we go into long patches of complete blurs seeing only the crawly movements of pixels which are usually followed by close-ups of the Africans who were rounded-up. The ‘exposure’ this ‘sting’ provides is bereft of actual indexical images of any form of misconduct. Sting videos in India (as the previous posts suggest) developed a certain vocabulary of truth images, which included long interludes of shaky, grainy blurry footage (most of often with significant audio portions). These videos use only the language and syntax of the real, attempting to create semiotic meaning founded purely on the visual language – the referent is entirely missing, just the moving mass of the pixels claiming stake at truth.

Interestingly even at the time of its release the video’s titles did not contain any easily-searchable keywords – ‘khirki‘, or ‘somnath bharti‘ or ‘sting‘ and were available primarily on Ankit Lal’s private channel. These videos were however circulated with great intensity via cell phones, dedicated Facebook pages and blog posts within Khirki and the surrounding areas. The impulse to circulate it within a specific area and people also gets reaffirmed by the response it generates. Various response videos were uploaded by Khirki residents which were again circulated rapidly within the Khirki community. A channel called Truth of Khirki soon came up on Youtube that contained material shot on cell phones by Khirki residents around their experience of living in the area. The most popular of these videos called ‘Real Truth of Khirki Extension -Sting by a Person – Truth behind Protest’ is a video of a few African men arguing and scuffling late at night on a street in the area shot surreptitiously by a man from his residence. Another video shows two African men loudly disagreeing and shoving each other during the day on the streets of khirki extension. Both these response videos are in various ways very similar to the Bharti raid videos – both clips are bereft of any actual action that appears illegal or convey information of prosecutable activities going on in the area as the residents and Bharti indicate. These videos also work on pure style – image templates laying claim to revealed truths.

In The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation Hito Steyerl speaks of the immense mass of digital rubble we create everyday – in the last few years alone digital images have outnumbered human population by far [21]. The availability of cellular cameras everywhere has allowed innumerable new claims to be staked at representation – new visual excavations of the world around us are made every minute destabilizing erstwhile image vocabularies of what things are supposed to look like and mean. The amount of non-fiction images especially has increased manifold as cell phones around the world mine the everyday around them and constantly uplink images. In this massive debris of image material, enormous piles of video shrapnel of truth-videos also get made. These are constantly mutating – creating their own new languages/styles and eating these new languages/styles up again by the sheer volume and speed with which new material gets created anew. Videos from Syria and Egypt, or the Rehman Malik clip emerge from this same new visual economy, as do the videos that came out of Khirki. The man recording the latter also performs the role of the upstanding citizen enraged at the dereliction of the city’s moral landscape; here too the presence of the camera invigorates new energies, makes the officials docile and the crowd proactive; and here too the assembled crowd chants accusations of shame. Shame is mobilized emphatically here, created by the sea of cell phones, the sheer velocity with which the image transfers and becomes part of thousands of key-word linked algorithms across various playlists on Youtube with dizzying speed globally. While shame is mobilized quicker, with lightning like intensity, it also dissipates with equal speed. We are at a moment of flux – the Kosovon wave travels faster than ever, gets watched and shared more than ever, and dissipates faster than ever. It’s impossible just yet to ascertain if it still means shamelessness.
 

Bibliography

 

[1] Gregory, Sam. 2010. Cameras Everywhere: Ubiquitous Video Documentation of Human Rights, New Forms of Video Advocacy, and Considerations of Safety, Security, Dignity and Consent. Re:Publica 11. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRJjFV1gZTQ.

[2] See: http://sarai.net/truth-low-resolution-and-post-social-media-transparency-introduction/.

[3] See: http://sarai.net/decoding-the-big-indian-sting/.

[4] Baladi, Lara. 2013. When Seeing is Belonging: The Photography of Tahrir Square. Creative Time Reports. September 16. Retrieved from: http://creativetimereports.org/2013/09/16/lara-baladi-photography-of-tahrir-square/.

[5] See [4].

[6] See [4].

[7] See If You See Something, Share Something website: http://www.ifussss.com/.

[8] See ACLU app: https://www.aclu-nj.org/yourrights/the-app-place/.

[9] NDTV. 2012. Naveen Jindal Vs Senior Zee Reporters. November 28. Retrieved from: http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/naveen-jindal-vs-zee-senior-journalists-arrested-over-alleged-extortion-298095.

[10] Indian Express. 2014. Sting Goes Wrong. March 13. Retrieved from: http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/bangalore/sting-goes-wrong-scribes-caught/.

[11] Keeenan, Thomas. 2004. Mobilizing Shame. The South Atlantic Quarterly. 103:2/3. Spring/Summer. Pp. 435-449.

[12] BBC News Asia. 2014. Pakistani who Shot Rehman Malik Plane Video Sacked. September 30. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29428744.

[13] See [11].

[14] See [11].

[15] See [11], p. 446.

[16] See [11].

[17] Baudrillard, Jean and Baddeley J. St. John (Translator). 1990. The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena. Verso.

[18] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL2MxQTCJ8k&list=UUqV3HXNOczdJn7yRmy2tq4A.

[19] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwA6TVoHcVw&index=3&list=UUqV3HXNOczdJn7yRmy2tq4A.

[20] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSd0Mdr6FTQ&index=10&list=UUqV3HXNOczdJn7yRmy2tq4A.

[21] Steyerl, Hito. 2012. The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation. e-flux. Retrieved from: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-spam-of-the-earth/).

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Published on: October 11, 2014


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