25 October, 2011
On Facebook, 371 people have ‘liked’ a graphic collection of photos of Gaddafi’s corpse as posted by the Libyan Youth Movement. Below the album a 254-comment fight is waging between the majority who are celebrating that Gaddafi ‘got what he deserved’ and the minority who are demanding the album be taken down.
The Gaddafi picture debate has raged from the front cover of our newspapers onto social media.
I posted all these pictures on Facebook as proof there was foul play at Gaddafi’s death (the beatings, the bullet hole) and immediately received angry comments from my friends. I was as bad as the men peace-signing over him or kicking his corpse, they said, I was glorifying the violence, disrespecting his death and worse still, inflicting this on the 700+ people who follow my newsfeed.
One of the biggest struggles that the Arab Spring faces is winning the right to tell the story. Take the Maspero massacre two weeks ago in Cairo. The army flatly denied any responsibility for the deaths of 27 protesters. The extremely violent footage showing the army running over and shooting at protesters and the bullet wounds on corpses at the Copt hospital has had over 14,000 views despite only being posted on YouTube last week. The Egyptian protesters cling to this visual evidence, no matter how graphic it is, as these are the words of their story telling.
In fact the Egyptian revolution was sparked because of the cell phone snap of the brutalised face of Khaled Said, whose death had been re-written by a state autopsy.
Across the Arab Spring, the revolutionaries have become acutely aware of the importance of ‘soft power’ – co-opting world favour through image story telling. Whilst social media may be for many a place to discuss your weekend, for them it is a battlefield.
Therefore it is not a coincidence that the reaction to Gaddafi’s photos here in Cairo, is yes, they should be disseminated and published. They do have a place on Twitter and Facebook news feeds.
Gaddafi, like a lot of these dictators, was a fantasist; he was the king of stories. As the NTC ‘troops’ gained significant ground, he wove tales of the regime still being in power, whilst organising tours of Tripoli for journalists with ample photo opportunities. In his televised speeches he blamed hallucinogenic drugs, Al Qaeda, mercenaries and at one point Nescafe.
The magnificent robes, the waves of lush hair, the sunglasses – these are not merely the symptoms of a vain man, these are bricks in the deliberate building of a manipulative visual presence. He was sculpturing a cult of personality, aimed at impressing the West and crucially the Arab nations: rather than the slick suits that Saif supported, Gaddafi was in Bedouin gowns.
We became all too familiar with his hard power (the guns, the threats) but Gaddafi never missed a photo opportunity, as typified by the recent discovery of yet more pictures with heads of state in his family home.
Even at his most mad (the umbrella moment) Gaddafi chose the ruins of the building Reagan bombed which reportedly killed his daughter, a clever tactic to win sympathy within the Arab world.
The sovereign of soft power, Gaddafi constantly used images and film to tell his story.
So we need to use images to finish it.
For the Libyans, the picture of Gaddafi dead and broken, whether we approve of it or not, is symbolic. It is symbolic of the confirmation of their right to finish their story: which is one of victory and most importantly ownership. How many times did the regime use false evidence, in the form of images, against them? Think about the power of state television, it is pertinent that Libyan-made amateur footage is what announced Gaddafi’s death. These photos also proves NATO was not on the ground. For those on their laptops in the UK and for the Libyans in the field: this is key.
The footage also tells another tale: how Gaddafi met his death. He died of wounds suffered during capture, was the official conclusion. The early video footage of Gaddafi being arrested shows him alive and relatively untouched. The later photos and videos show beatings and bullet holes. Recently discovered footage shows him possibly being sodomised by a knife. These images were significant enough for the UN Human Rights office and Amnesty International to call for an investigation into his death. We should talk about it.
From the moment we voted in favour of NATO intervention, the UK cannot escape the fact we got involved – in fact we took a lead. With so few reliable witnesses, obtaining and disseminating graphical evidence of this historic world event is essential. So the problem is not whether the pictures should be printed/posted, rather how they are presented.
Why were my friends upset? They mistook my presentation. They saw it as glorification of violence that doesn’t concern them in an inappropriate setting- in other words, the gratuitous posting of violent images for no credible or purposeful end. This is where we differ.
Facebook and Twitter, in my opinion, are even less gratuitous platforms for these kinds of debates than newspapers, as they revolve around discussion. They give us a proper voice, they are interactive and crucially, they are a network – we can forward the information at lightening speed. Let us not merely consume and consume but talk back.
It does concern us. Whether we like it or not, we were involved in Libya. Our country allied itself with the NTC ‘troops’. If you take the reasoning far enough we helped put Gaddafi on that bloodstained mattress – we can’t step out of the debate now.
To me, if pictures of a tortured dead dictator should be anywhere it should be on social media, where we congregate and talk about it.
How else can we tell our side of the story?