Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Two Images Intersect in Iran

The website "" the internet presence of an American newspaper supplements their hardcopy with the publication of large, high quality photographs online. This feature is called, "Big Picture," which carries a double entendre: The formal description is an accurate way to describe the suites of 15 or more photographs posted online with a brief explanation dwarfed beneath each of the 1000 pixel wide images. They are displayed against a white background that scrolls vertically in an html page. However, the second meaning is its assessment of purpose, to provide a context for events around the world through the free resource of timely documentation.

At the permalink, "" you can currently find the following headline and this excerpt from the introductory paragraph:

"A Troubled Week in Iran

In the ten days since Iran's disputed presidential election street demonstrations have taken place everyday... Iranian officials maintain their stance that Mahmoud Ahmadinejand was the undisputed winner..."

Boston's "big picture" of Iran is typical of contemporary photojournalism in many respects, both in execution and in public reception. Execution is a grim pun in this case, as protesters are shown bloody and in some cases mortally wounded in these photographs. There are familiar scenes of government men easily identifiable in their military camouflage pointing guns at a motley crew of young and old people. If there is a difference between these images and those taken in Vietnam decades earlier, they are mostly cosmetic. This is photojournalism nowadays, a vocabulary of violent images that gets restaged again, and again. On this particular site there is a similarity between these images from Iran and those taken at the protest of the World Trade Organization in the U.S. posted earlier this year. Earlier this month, BOSTON.COM posted images of Tiananmen Square in China, remembered on the anniversary of another protest anxiously witnessed by the world.

One salient detail that helps clarify this protest from the others, is the burquas an item of traditional clothing worn by Muslim women. The burqua is featured prominently in the most famous image; it adorns the head of a woman who was shot in the chest and lies dying in the arms of a fellow protester. Otherwise, you will see other women wearing burquas in addition to stickers that read in two languages: "Where is my vote?" Some women are wearing burquas, stickers, and forming a symbolic "V" with the fingers of both hands just like Richard Nixon did when he got off of Air Force One. These two images encapsulate the story for viewers. Two pictures of women, one a famous martyr to her cause lying still and one anonymously waving the symbols of peace and victory that have been adopted by people around the globe at different times for different reasons.

The victim of violence, an unarmed woman, is haunting before you hear any of the details. The snapshot of a woman making a peace sign is meaningful only in its proper context. The traditional Arab world, what we think of as collectively as, "The Middle East" despite all of its nuanced history and varied cultures, is represented iconically by the burqua for its unique custom of covering women in public. For some in the western world it represents repression of women as it literally masks their identity and individuality. Iran is not unusual in the Middle East for being a patriarchal culture with fewer rights for women in both policy and practice. The burqua is a decidedly Middle Eastern tradition. Meanwhile, the hand gesture of making a "V" with your index finger and the finger adjacent while balling the remaining thumb and other two fingers is a historically western custom.

The "V" of victory or the "peace symbol" as it is alternatively known, originates from a premodern era, but is contemporary usage can be most likely traced to the allies Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson shooting the symbol out to the crowds and photographers of World War II. Victory meant peace in that incident, and so both Vietnam War President Richard Nixon and the peace idolaters of the American youth adopted it in the 1970’s. There is even a rumor that an Olympic Figure Skater who graciously fell in competition and ironically flashed the victory symbol helped popularize the hand gesture for Japanese amateur photographers. The hand symbol also has a connotation of contempt when displayed palm inward by users in Great Britain. As the 2009 Iranian presidential election protesters use it, the "V" is meaningful once again. The "V" is both an adopted symbol of peace as well as a pointed use of western language.

For the western world and the United States, in particular, these images of Iran represent clear battle lines being drawn in the sand by protesters. First of all, the results of an election are at the heart of what it means O jI I asdf asfadsfct of war. However, the subversion of a democratic election especially if the result favors a notoriously anti-American and repressive tyrant is worth starting a war for some people. To further complicate this picture, Americans, like President Obama are still shy of seeming to "meddle" in the middle east due to the previous administration's actions in Iraq and the continuing presence in Afghanistan. To history, protests become either symbolic rallying cries or empty acts of desperation.

Certainly, the United States, home of BOSTON.COM is sympathetic to the interests of the protesters, brave in the face of destruction, but a coup d'etat of Ahmadinejand's administration is as unlikely as any overt action from any other nation. For now, at least, it seems true that the world is watching.

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