Arab Uprisings and Impersonal Images

— Dork Zabunyan

Images of the egyptian revolution extracted from a TV channel Al-Jazeera video (31 January 2011)

Our perception of the Arab revolts cannot be dissociated from the images shot by those who are its direct actors. These images, often captured using cell phones at the heart of the demonstrations, and sometimes at great risk for their users, are then posted on the Internet and broadcasted via social networks, or await viewers on YouTube. In this sense, taking to the streets and using these kinds of technological interfaces have been the two sides of many Tunisian revolutionaries’ agendas: “In the daytime, we were outside demanding the end of the Ben Ali regime; at night, we were on Facebook, describing what we had seen by uploading pictures that we had taken during these events onto the Internet,” says one of them. Considering the multiplicity of videos uploaded or stocked on websites linked to the protest movements, there is no doubt that this bond between physical contestation and its electronic broadcasting has punctuated the days of others insurgents—whether Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, or Yemenite. Yet here, we are not trying to justify the lazy explanation that leads to say that the images and commentaries loaded onto the Web have enabled the emergence and unfolding of the Arab revolutions, especially as the equipment rate varies considerably from one country to another (35% of Tunisians have access to the Internet, compared to the less than 20% in Egypt; about 18% of the former have a Facebook account, while only 5% of the latter do)[1]. We must be careful not to sacralize the technological determination of these moments of freedom, but instead try to understand why these colorful ‘amateur’ videos, shot in agitated regions of the world, disrupt our relationship to the struggles that affect history in a more general manner, therefore transforming our way of witnessing these today.

Two remarks on the historical impact of these images immediately stand out. On the one hand, they are the sign of an elaboration of a revolutionary memory by the revolutionaries themselves; it is a way for them—anonymous bodies, yet with a firm grip on what is happening—to transmit current events without claiming to act as historians, although inventing new possibilities of “passing on history,” as Michel Foucault once said in an interview on “popular memory” (free, nonetheless, of any folklore): “It is absolutely true that people—I mean those who have no access to writing, making their own books, telling their own history—still have a way of recording history, of remembering it, living it, and using it.”[2] This declaration acquires a new consistency in regards to the live recordings of current uprisings, which can be found online very soon after. A “popular memory” composed of bit-mapped, shaky-framed images, snatched out of the present whatever the cost, and which is so consistent with a memory of the future, in the sense that the issue remains a regeneration of struggles through the traces that are kept of it; as Foucault states in the same interview: “if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism. And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles.” There is no doubt these contemporary archives will be studied by future historians, while they try to untangle the intricate meanings of the tormented period we are currently going through—the American Library of Congress and French National Library have already anticipated these investigations by starting an inventory and classification of all the videos relating to the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution.”

The second remark is more intimately linked with the relationships between different types of animated pictures—cinema, television, the Internet, etc.—the study of which determines the hypothetical primacy of one of these, in that it helps to understand the present. During another revolution—the Romanian revolution of December 1989—Serge Daney offered an apparently disillusioned report, noting that since the early 1980s, “cinema” and “history” were “clearly not in the same boat anymore,” and that information on the affairs of the world now depended on “the realm of television.” Cinema may remain the “art of the present” par excellence, but this privilege essentially follows a backward movement—recalling, answering audiovisual amnesia strategies, or taking opposite views of existing images that cover up an insistent or embarrassing past: “Cinema only exists to bring back what has been already seen once—well seen, wrongly seen, or unseen.”[3] The fact remains that unlike Rossellini’s Italy, which took part in the country’s post-war resurfacing with Open City and Paisà, Romania was subjected to a “Télé-invention,” as Daney proposes. So, there actually was a “Romanian image event”—one remembers the crazed representatives of the “National Salvation Front,” who took over the State’s television sets to inform the freed nation of the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. This was a “unique televised action,” inseparable from the revolutionary surge that brought down the dictatorship, although it was sullied with a notorious lie (the Timisoara mass graves) and a mockery of a trial (the Ceausescu couple’s), both broadcasted by Romanian television channels. In Tunis, on January 14, 2011, the day Ben Ali fled, there were no strong images of protesters taking over national television, although it was under the president’s thumb. Instead, the protesters chose to turn towards another building, which had been a symbol of the regime’s repression: the Home Office building (from which resounded, louder and louder, the famous “Clear off!”, addressed to a man who was already on the run). It was as if taking over television was no longer a political symbol of a regime’s overthrow, and as if the images of the overthrow now used more reticular and more dispersed broadcasting techniques—the ones connected to our computer screens.

Of course, this does not suppose the death of television, the images of which could have become obsolete with the spread of the Arab uprisings—incapable of keeping track because of its rigid programme schedules, of the transnational contamination of these unexpected events. If attention needed to be paid to the mutations that modify the perception of these various struggles, the distinction between representational modes must not cause us to forget the forms of hybridization that can exist between media. It seems that, on the one hand, television broadcasts videos found on the Internet: the news on France 2 showed footage of the first riots in Kasserine, Tunisia, shot by its inhabitants; CNN decided to broadcast the terrifying night sequence filmed from a Cairo building, in which a white van can be seen charging into the crowd, instantly killing a dozen people. Nevertheless, as everything cannot be shown on television, a selection is applied by these same channels, and the extremely violent footage of the Syrian revolution is hardly broadcasted or commented on by journalists, although available online. Another type of media cohabitation resides in the to and fro set up by the live coverage news channels between what is visible on air and on their respective websites, which propose a large number of videos to view, potentially turning them into YouTube-like hosting platforms (this is particularly obvious in the case of Al Jazeera English). Finally, one could mention the films shot intentionally for television, and which then end up online, such as Gaddafi’s crazed speeches, whether the incredible twenty-two second shot in which the “colonel”, holding an umbrella, can be seen standing before the ruins of his Tripoli residency that the Americans bombed in 1986, or his endless speech on February 22, 2011 at the entrance of this same building, with a projector pointing from the dictator’s pulpit to the ruins behind him—the staging of a strange propaganda, combining elements of past destruction and fights to come. This, for instance, needs to be followed in its online continuity (for lack of seeing it live on Libyan television) in order to properly grasp some of its most eloquent staging details, independently from how well we understand the language (such as the split-screen between Gaddafi and the population supposedly listening to him, but who will never be seen outside this division).

“How does one live with such images?” asked Daney in the days after the end of the Gulf War in 1991 (following a flood of images almost entirely shot from the American point of view), and hardly more than a year after having analyzed the “télé-invention” of Romania, where this question was already latent. The cinema and television critic then proposed an answer, which may help understand the specificity of the era of images that we are experiencing through the prism of the Arab revolutions. After advising not to focalize on the world’s losing its sense of reality, maybe owing to the “visuals” of mainstream media (to the detriment of the cinematographic “image,” which remains concerned with the figure of the other), he invites the spectator to adopt a more active work posture, in this case none less than the editor’s: “It is one thing to blame those ‘whose job it is’ for not doing it right, but another to understand that it also depends on us. If the visual aspect prevents us from seeing (because it would rather have us decode, or decrypt), an image always challenges us to edit it with another, with someother.”[4] Which leads Daney to find himself “becoming an editor inside [his] own head,” organizing images “according to his opinions, his fantasies, or his memories of war movies,”—a way of not being trapped in a direct opposition between a “visual” that would mask reality and an “image” that would only show it through an excess of vision. We have, nowadays, very likely left the paradigm of “the missing image” behind, in the sense that it has been absorbed or made obsolete once and for all by the levelling flow of the dominant media, although they have other ways of pursuing their operation of removing information. The dissemination of images mentioned above certainly impedes this reading of current affairs in incomplete terms, yet this is conversely no reason to blissfully believe in an easy understanding of the “Arab Spring” footage based on its online availability.

If one reconsiders the notion of the spiritual, virtual, or “inside the head” editing expressed by Daney, one can legitimately note that nowadays its potential updating is contained within an assembling process that is rapidly resurfacing: the slideshow. A sequence of still images—often accompanied by music, which increases its lyrical effect—recently used in two very dissimilar feature films: Brian de Palma’s Redacted (2007) ends with a series of photographs depicting the “collateral damage” of the war in Iraq, and the end credits of Harvey Milk (2009) follow the slideshow trend by using pictures related to the struggle for homosexual rights in the United States (the subject of Gus Van Sant’s film). YouTube is also crawling with all kinds of slideshows, and even Chris Marker has uploaded his own, called Tempo risoluto, devoted to the Egyptian revolution.[5] So why use still images to express the commemoration of present history, even when these slideshows are burgeoning all over a website that was first intended for stocking moving images? In the 1970s, the photographer Gisèle Freund proposed a diagnosis, which might in turn answer this question by pointing out our relationship with the memory of events, in times when our consciences are saturated with mobile images: “The irony is that the more we consume animated images, the more the single image takes precedence over the rest, and replaces our reality”—and even more radically: “It is always the still image, and not the moving image, which is engraved on one’s mind, forever becoming part of our collective memory.”[6] The slideshow probably reinterprets the establishment of this kind of memory, yet remains closer to the idea of the increasing multiplication of visual signs that seems to define our times. Let us consider one of the slideshow’s recurring image transitions—the dissolve. Jacques Aumont, who studied this process for cinema, claims that in this case the image seems to “keep going on and on” to the point that it “never ends;” this leads to a “blending of images,” as if the interval between them had disappeared.[7] A visual impression that can be largely found in contemporary slideshows—especially if one lists the other types of image layouts that can be found there—and which reinforces the impression of continuity, combining suspense and a continuous overlapping of still images: the use of a shutter to jump from one to the other (sideways, and preferably from left to right), or cutting one down the middle before letting the other in (although Chris Marker works the other way round: the images in Tempo risoluto are recomposed after having been shown as scattered fragments).

Whatever the general mediocrity of slideshows, which have trouble avoiding the emotional pomposity that rules over or governs any memory of popular protests, there very likely exists a link between the new wave of slideshows—in which the space between images is either fading or missing—and the world of images that ours has become, marked by an accumulation of signs and the enhancement of our thresholds of perception. Furthermore, as a pretext for celebrating the liberation of the people through an act of remembrance, the slideshows of the Arab revolts are very much situated at the crossroads between the “visual” and the “image,” with the idea that a relevant picture of these revolts might be brought out by an editing of visual elements that do not necessarily avoid stereotypes (the figure of the bloody martyr, the unknown demonstrator who unwillingly becomes an icon, etc.).[8] This remains possible, and the specificity of the slideshow is precisely its ability to extract from a cliché image an image that is no longer a cliché, or to perceive a cliché image in such a way that it ceases to be one, thereby jutting out from the indistinct flow of images; in all probability, Marker’s work with Tempo risoluto follows this standard.

Generally speaking, this is the danger that awaits any representation of revolutionary commitment and its consequences: the act of limiting the memory of a struggle by summoning the figure of the hero, which has the effect of relieving the commitment of any genuine power—the power of being impersonal, and therefore elusive, without being reduced to the reassuring identification of a name that excludes all others. In this respect, a strange fiction film is currently undergoing preparation in Tunisia, and should focus on the life of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man from Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, sparking riots in the entire country. This is how the producer, Tarek Ben Ammar, presents the project: “This film is produced by a Tunisian, directed by a Tunisian [Mohamed Zran], and is about a young Tunisian. No one but us could have made it,” before adding that “this film is a way of making his name universal, of turning him into a symbol.” Whether or not we choose to ignore the impression that nothing should justify the claim on an event based on the fact that one has had the privilege of experiencing it, we still have the right to expect a little more from the cinema than the debasement of such an exceptional historical sequence to a story told time and time again, founded on the victimization/hero worship combination. “Is it possible to make a ‘positive’ film about the revolution without summoning some hero or other?,” questioned Foucault, anxious to hear the “battle rumble” that any struggle necessarily develops, and which belongs to no one in particular. If the Arab revolts inspire films in a “positive” way, or as an “art of the present,” this may be due to the convictions that the actors of these revolts carry deep within—that these struggles are not a matter of property but, instead, hint at a dynamic memory that links them to other actors they do not know.

Translated from French by Lucy Pons


Image of Gaddafi’s “Umbrella Speech” extracted from a short video filmed the 22 February 2011 and shown on TV

  1. [1] CNN statistics.
  2. [2] M. Foucault, “Anti-Retro,” one of the first interviews of the philosopher in Cahiers du Cinéma (no. 251-252, July/August 1974), republished by Gallimard in his Dits et écrits, tome II, text no. 140 in 2001.
  3. [3] Serge Daney, respectively “Roumanie année zéro,” in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 428 (February 1990) and Persévérance (Paris: P.O.L., 1994), 110.
  4. [4] Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main (Paris : Aléas, 1999), 194 (emphasis by the author).
  5. [5]
  6. [6] Quoted by Raymond Bellour in “Du photographique,” Trafic, no. 55 (Autumn), 34. 
  7. [7] Jacques Aumont, Matière d’images, redux (Paris: La Différence, 2009) 268.
  8. [8] Among the many anonymous slideshows:,
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