YouTube and the aesthetics of political protest

”YouTube and the aesthetics of political protest–

an inquiry into the genre of the demonstration video”

Tina Askanius, Lund University


In 2009, the images of a dying young woman shot by the Iranian security forces during the election protests was put on YouTube and immediately went around the world. The 1.53 minutes it took for Neda Agha-Soltan to die before the eyes of the international community turned her into a martyr and made her name a rallying cry for the protesters. Just recently, the anonymous person who captured on a cell phone and made public her death was awarded the George Polk journalism award. The story of Neda is just one recent example of a YouTube video that was picked up by mainstream media and had a huge impact on public debate and the political agenda. This trend essentially mirrors the increased importance of user contributions to journalism in an era where cameras are commonplace and embedded in practices of everyday media technologies.


In the present discussion, the amateur shots of the popular revolts in Iran are emblematic of what can be considered an emerging ‘genre’ of videos put on YouTube; the demonstration video. Videos falling into this category range from more or less random cell phone shots to the semi-professionally edited productions of media activist or well-established video collectives who systematically document political violence, police brutality etc., in order to feed the news flow with stories told from the perspective of the people marching in the streets.


This paper will address, exemplify and contextualize the particular genre of the demonstration video as a contemporary phenomenon of collective ‘vernacular’ memory (Zelizer, 1998; 2004) at the same time projecting aesthetics of dissent, which seek to mobilize activists for future direct actions. More generally, it offers a re-articulation of the longstanding debate on visual evidence and action in the shifting terrain of documentary in the face of phenomenon such as DIY footage uploaded to online repositories (Austin & de Jong, 2008). I take as my empirical starting point the recurring demonstrations against the G8/20 summits with the death of Ian Tomlinson in London, 2009 (, Rosie & Gorringe, 2009) as a fixed point to raise questions about how the body of videos on this particular event links up with videos narrating ‘the moment of death’ (Zelizer, 2004) of protesters during previous G8 demonstrations. Guided by the notions of collective memory and commemorate genres (Wagner-Pacifi, 1996; Wahlberg, 2009) I pay specific attention to one small thread of demonstration videos: the commemorations of political martyrs and the ways in which issues of visual evidence and truth claims are negotiated within the distinctive context of YouTube.


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