Archive for the ‘Dictatorship’ tag
“I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.” These words uttered by Muammar Gaddafi late in the night on Libyan state television will be remembered as a key moment in the downfall of an autocratic and ruthless regime. Western media pundits were quick to point to the bizarreness of the TV footage, referring to Gaddafi’s ‘eccentricity’, implying that few elements in this artifact of visual culture made any sense. Some have even compared Gaddafi’s appearance with the surrealist art of the spanish painter Salvador Dali. At the same time, conspiracy theories emerged almost immediately. Gaddafi is holding a large umbrella, but did it actually rain that evening? Rain is so rare in that part of the world that it is a valid question.
Yet a more careful reading of Gaddafi’s short but memorable TV appearance shows that a number of elements are likely very deliberately planned and executed. Ever since the footage was screened, there has been a huge amount of curiosity regarding the vehicle that Gaddafi is sitting in. Here, it is important to point out that Gaddafi is sitting in the driving seat, clearly signifying that he is in charge of determining the direction his country is heading towards. Gaddafi’s TV appearance is reminscient of propaganda billboards erected throughout the country, which depict the dictator driving a Volkswagen Beetle.
The message is clear: he is the ‘driving’ force in running the country. Unlike the Volkswagen Beetle however, the vehicle depicted in the TV footage is, importantly, a car with only one seat. While the propaganda billboard shows Gaddafi driving without passengers, the single seated vehicle even negates the possibility of any passengers. In other words, Gaddafi is depicted running the country, without any interference, all by himself. The single-seated vehicle in the TV footage signifies precisely the type of state Gaddafi is leading: autocracy is defined as a system government by one person with absolute power.
The most important aspect of the footage is the location where it was made. Gaddafi says, “I am in Tripoli”. More precisely, Gaddafi is located in front of his compound in Bab Al Azizia which was heavily bombed by the Reagan administration in 1986. Instead of rebuilding the shattered compound, Gaddafi chose to leave it as it is. The skeletal structure of the building acts as a powerful message of defiance and resilience. In 2003, just as Libya’s relationship with the West was thawing, Gaddafi even held a beauty pageant with international contestants, including British and American women, at this historically important site. The British photographer Muir Vidler produced a strikingly surreal series of photographs that depict the proceedings. The Bab Al Azizia compound would also become the backdrop to Nicolas Sarkozy’s state visit to Libya in 2007. The photograph clearly depicts Sarkozy’s discomfort for being turned into a strategically placed pawn by Gaddafi’s propaganda apparatus.
Gaddafi’s late night TV appearance thus sets up a fairly complex web of signifiers that might not be immediately determinable. By depicting himself in a single-seated car, Gaddafi wishes to communicate that it is still him, who is leading the country. The location is carefully chosen as a site of historical importance, signifying Gaddafi’s assumed resilience and defiance vis a vis the most powerful nation on earth. Gaddafi portrays himself as David standing up against Goliath. But the message is also directed at Britain, as it was the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who initially speculated that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela. A photograph of Hugo Chavez and Gaddafi in a luxury car is an ironic symbol for Venezuela’s close ties with Libya. Unlike the TV footage however, it showed Chavez in the driving seat. In his very brief TV appearance, Gaddafi thus sets up a geopolitical web of international relations that spans the whole globe. Similar to my blog post on the final speech by the former Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, the signs and symbols used in Gaddafi’s TV appearance are a desperate attempt to cling on to the steering wheel.
This is a screenshot from a Facebook user based in Cairo where, at the moment the screenshot was taken, a popular uprising is taking place. In order to protect the identity of the user, I blacked out their names and personal details. Consistent with various different Egyptian Facebook users, the profile photograph has been changed in recent days to reflect the countries mood. A number of users uploaded the Egyptian flag, others show images of Karl Marx or Che Guevera, yet the vast majority of politically motived profile changes on Egyptian Facebook accounts include a photograph taken by an anonymous person depicting the initial protest march on the 25th of January 2011 at El Tahrir Square in Cairo. As reported in an article on Fastcompany.com, the photograph was posted by a Facebook campaign called Mama Qarat.
The use of this specific photograph for a profile change is an important aspect in the current protest and the visual culture of ideological change. Taken from a high vantage point, the photograph depicts masses of people gathering in Cairo’s biggest public square protesting against the government and the president Hosni Mubarak. The location depicted in the photograph has a political significance since El Tahrir Square, or Freedom Square, has been the central focus for a number of protests in Cairo: from Anti-Iraq War to Pro-Palestinian marches, the square is a strategic point for political expression. Apart from that however, little detail is visible in the image. The masses remain absolutely anonymous. This is an important aspect because the image itself doesn’t compromise the identity of an individual protester (nor did I wish to compromise their identity by showing their profile information). By choosing this photograph as profile shot, the Egyptian Facebook user is equally willing to suspend his or her photographic identity in place of a greater cause.
The photograph is also highly self-referential with regard to the context it is disseminated in. While it depicts masses of people, the photograph itself is uploaded by masses of people signifying their allegiance with the anti-government protests. In other words, the photograph signifies the popular uprising in two important ways: in what it depicts, but also, in the way that it is circulated via the social network. Here, it is also important to point out that the existence of social media in itself is a critical agent in uprisings in Iran, Tunisia and most recently Egypt. This is the power of the so-called flashmob: an almost instantaneous gathering of a large mass of people effectuated through social media such as Facebook or Twitter.
The recent changes by Egyptian Facebook users underlines the significance of the social network in the creation of a critical mass which has proven to take down autocratic regimes in the past. The changing of the profile photograph is significant because, apart from the Facebook users name, the profile photograph is the first visual encounter with the user, and, importantly, Facebook informs other users when the a number of ‘friends’ change their profile photograph. As the anonymous photograph is uploaded at a rapid rate in Egypt, the photograph in itself becomes the agent of political change.
A tumblr site dedicated to Kim Jong Il Looking at Things is the latest online craze in visual culture. As the title of the site suggests, it’s a collection of photographs depicting the North Korean dictator ostensibly caught in moments of ‘looking’. By now, the site is so popular that the tumblr server periodically breaks down. The timing of the tumblr site is impeccable: launched on the 26th of October 2010 by an anonymous user in Lisbon, Portugal, the site was barely up and running for a month as North Korean missiles hit South Korean targets, killing two civilians on the 22nd of November 2010. By that time, the tumblr site already had a solid following. In this time of mounting tension between the two Koreas, it appears that Kim Jong Il’s image was never as popular as it is now.
What is it about these photographs that makes them so popular? As the viewer is looking at Kim Jong Il, he is looking at fish, a factory, a radish, a powerpoint presentation and so forth. Sigmund Freud defined this dualistic relationship between the pleasure of looking and being looked at as Schaulust, or scopophilia. The viewer is drawn to these photographs of Kim Jong Il by the scopophilic drive to encounter the Other. Here, the Other is a notorious dictator, bathing in the cult of personality, reigning over a introverted and closed off regime once described by George W. Bush being part of the ‘axis of evil’. In a sense, the popularity of photographs of Kim Jong Il points to the desire to put a face to this Western construct of evil.
The anonymous photographer taking these pictures must have worked under immense pressure to produce flattering images of Kim Jong Il. One of the big problems is that Kim Jong Il is short built and, despite a special pair of plateau shows, consistently appears smaller than those who are supposed to be ‘below’ him. The photographer seeks to avoid this visual contradiction by photographing Kim Jong Il from a lower vantage point. This methodology is apparent in most photographs in which Kim Jong Il conducts so-called ‘tours of field guidance’ – a tradition he inherited from his father Kim Il Sung. In the photograph of Kim Jong Il looking at wheat for instance, the lower vantage point of the camera underlines his position as leader, looking forward, his gaze directed to the future, while everyone else (including the camera and by extension the viewer) is looking at him. The tragic irony in photographs of Kim Jong Il looking at his country’s agriculture is that chronic food shortages have caused millions of deaths in North Korea over the last two decades. Here, the photograph is clearly part of a propaganda apparatus that seeks to establish that the North Korean regime is capable of feeding its own people.
However, the photographs are also, although they are not intended to be, tragically funny. There is for example the image of Kim Jong Il holding a radish with this right hand. The left hand, like in most photographs of the ‘Dear Leader’, remains hidden or tucked into a pocket. The West has long been speculating that Kim Jong Il’s health is fading and that his left side of the body is partially paralyzed. In the photograph, the physical decline of Kim Jong Il is signified by the radish (the phallus) pointing downwards thus prompting a look of disapproval by the dictator. Next to Kim Jong Il is his Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho, one of the most senior military officers in North Korea, with a notepad. A cursory glance at the collection of photographs reveals that people standing next to or near Kim Jong Il customarily carry a notepad and a pen. They are, as it appears in the images, always prepared to make a note of sudden bursts of ingenuity exclaimed by Kim Jong Il. He is the speaker while others make note of it.
And while senior military staff and members of the Politbüro are always prepared for guidance by their leader, the photographer too, is prepared to react when Kim Jong Il indulges in his well-known eccentricities. In one image he puts on a straw hat, while in another he appears to crack a joke about a red bucket. These are the kind of uncanny moments that humanize Kim Jong Il. The photographs of him smiling and making others smile don’t sit well in the larger context of military aggression and brutal state oppression. The discomfort felt looking at these photographs of Kim Jong Il is comparable to a key scene in ‘The Downfall’ in which Adolf Hitler is depicted petting his German Shepherd. How can evil be caring? In the same way, how can evil be funny?
This is maybe the main reason why these photographs have become so popular recently: the uncanny desire for a visual encounter with the Other during a time in which a simple dichotomization between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ through a Bushian looking glass seems to fail. And while American and South Korean warships gather in the East China Sea in preparation for an all out war with Pyongyang, effectively turning the geopolitical gaze from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to North Korea, a little site depicting a little man keeps on attracting new visitors eager to look at him – trying to understand, who is this man.
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