They’re about more than narcissism; they’re also tools for political self-identification.
What follows is the second installment of a Q&A with authors Rebecca L. Stein, Adi Kunstman, and Negar Mottahedeh on the politicized use of selfies in contemporary political and social solidarity-building campaigns. All three have studied the use of social media in the context of Middle Eastern politics; Stein and Kuntsman, co-authors of Digital Militarism, have studied the use of social media in the Israeli occupation, while Mottahedeh, writing in #iranelection, chronicles how Iran’s post election crisis of 2009 achieved international notoriety as a result of its momentum on social media. You can see Part I of this Q&A here.
What are some of the most interesting cases of selfie activism that you’ve encountered?
ADI KUNSTMAN & REBECCA STEIN: Over the course of the last five years, we’ve watched the militarized selfie gradually grow and spread—a genre used both by soldiers in the Israeli military and by Israeli civilians as well. When we first encountered the phenomenon in 2010, before the massive global proliferation of the selfie, mobile self-portraits of soldiers in contexts of military violence were considered exceptional and scandalous. Early instances of selfie militarism included Facebook photographs of soldiers posing in Palestinian homes during routine raids, or in front of blindfolded and cuffed detainees at checkpoints. These early cases shocked the Israeli public and were deemed social aberrations, exceptions to Israel’s “moral army” and the national ethos of “purity of arms.”
In 2012, the genre began to proliferate. During the Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip, young male and female soldiers circulated mobile snapshots of themselves waiting to deploy for a ground incursion.
For many international audiences, the contrast between context and content was striking—between the carnage and devastation brought by Israeli air raids, and these beautified images on Instagram, aestheticized with retro filters and devoid of any reference to ongoing military violence. Instead, these images migrated the deadly ambitions of the military into the captions (“ready to defend my country” or “we are coming for you, Gaza”), or into hashtags strings (“#kill #sexy #nevergiveup #sleep #m16 #instalove #happy”). Selfie militarism of this kind, expressing solidarity for the state’s violent campaigns in the Palestinian territories, beautified the army experience while cleansing it from any responsibility for its deadly deeds.
By the time we finished our book, in 2014, in keeping with the global proliferation and normalization of the selfie genre, these kinds of selfies had become commonplace, crystallizing as ordinary vehicles for the articulation of militarized politics and sensibilities. Today, the militarized selfie is a popular mode of Israeli political expression—frequently used by Israeli soldiers, on and off-duty, and also by ordinary Jewish citizens. Last year, for example, Israelis mounted a broad-based citizen-led selfie campaign calling for violent revenge against Palestinians (an example below).
The campaign featured family members posing together and numerous scenes of everyday life, shot in ordinary settings: at home, in a child or teenager’s bedroom, with babies or pets. All were united by a single message, handwritten on posters, post-it notes, scrapbook papers and even naked torsos: “#ThePeopleofIsraelDemandRevenge.” In the last few weeks, a similar selfie campaign was launched by Israeli civilians in support of the death penalty for so-called “terrorists” (a term used capaciously, often as a general reference to Palestinians). As one sees in the image below, these articulations of selfie militarism also trafficked in digital intimacy, drawing both family members and private domestic spaces into the call for violence:
These selfies share something with the forms of subversive selfie activism with which we are most familiar. As we have suggested, selfie activism—or what Adi Kuntsman calls “selfie citizenship”—frequently mobilizes the personal, the intimate and the domestic as part of its political toolbox. But what is unique to the Israeli case is the relationship between intimacy and violence—or rather, the ways these terms work together. Here, unlike most global examples of selfie solidarity, intimacy is not juxtaposed to violence, nor is it deployed as a tool with which to confront violence or expose its effects. Rather, it functions as its complement. In the process, we see a phenomenon at work that runs throughout digital militarism: the simultaneous affirmation, obfuscation and normalization of Israeli state violence through intimate digital gestures, spaces, and structures of feelings. In this way, the selfie serves as the occupation’s loving accomplice.
Do you think selfies have the capacity to make a particular political ideal, stance, or attitude “go viral”?
NEGAR MOTTAHEDEH: I taught an upper division course focusing on the selfie at Duke this past academic year and watched with my students the growing number of movements that attempted to spread an idea or a sense of outrage using the selfie, which because of its digital nature and its circulation on many-to-many social platforms, has the capacity to go viral. Among the movements and campaigns that we studied, were the well known #nomakeup selfie campaign for cancer, and the #wejustneedtopee selfies that drew attention to the absence of facilities for transgender people in United States. These latter viral selfies are another way to think about how intimacy bears witness to the violence of the law).
An image from the #wejustneedtopee selfie campaign, 2015. This image from trans activist Brae Carnes refers to Donald Plett, a conservative Canadian politician. “Let’s put an end to this ridiculous, hateful, and hypocritical amendment by the conservatives. #plettputmehere” writes Carnes in the caption to her photo on her Facebook page.
We also studied lesser known movements such as the #sealfie campaign that defended the rights of indigenous populations in North America to continue seal hunting for subsistence; the garbage selfies from Tunisia that were used to bring attention to the neglect of the city by the government; the #notamartyr selfies from Lebanon, which was a citizens’ call for peace in the country; and Turkey’s #direnkahkaha—laughing selfies that aimed to ridicule the deputy minister’s claim that women laughing and smiling in public was a sign of moral corruption.
An image from Turkey's #direnkahkaha selfie campaign, 2014.
In #iranelection, I discuss a viral phenomenon known as the #MenInScarves movement or the #IamMajid selfies. This was likely the first selfie campaign to go viral before the selfie was a thing. On December 7, 2009, at the six-month point of the Iranian post election uprising, Majid Tavakoli, a student at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University of Technology, was arrested after he gave a fiery talk during student protests. A photograph of him in a hijab was published by an official news agency announcing that he had attempted to flee security forces donned in women’s clothing.
Supporters of the Iranian opposition around the world saw things differently however. It was clear to them that the photo of Majid Tavakoli in a veil was an attempt to ridicule him by associating his courage with “the weaker sex.” Thousands of Iranian men all over the world donned the hijab and posted their #IamMajid selfies on social media, using these photos as their avatars on Twitter and Facebook. In their captions, the men claimed their solidarity with Iranian women who have no choice but to veil under the current Islamic regime and strongly voiced their opposition to the human rights violations of the Islamic Republic, calling for the release of the imprisoned Majid Tavakoli.
The viral campaign eventually went live in many cities around the world. A YouTube video signaled the campaign’s global impact: A group of Iranian men calling themselves “Majid” posed together, donning the hijab in front of the Eiffel tower.
This act of resistance to the violation of human rights in Iran had stunning reverberations elsewhere too: French men and women put on the veil in solidarity with the Iranian men’s scarves movement, and in this simple gesture that went viral on Facebook and Twitter, showed their opposition to l’affaire du voile in France (the controversy in France over the wearing of veils in public).
This is not to say that the effort to bring about civil liberties and the firm stand against the violation of human rights in Iran subsided as a result of the #IamMajid campaign. Nor should we assume that the recent Iran deal—which also generated selfies—has solved the human rights crisis in Iran in any way at all. What the consequences of the #IamMajid campaign suggest, is that the viral circulation of selfies has had an important impact on other oppositional movements and generated global collaborations and solidarity around a networked object. The generative hope of this hashtag solidarity trumps both the rhetoric of narcissism and also the political outrage oftentimes voiced in viral selfies by social movements.
Stanford University Press blog
How the Green Movement mobilized social media in the interest of social change.
Stanford University Press blog
How Israelis live intimately with the military occupation in their digital lives.
Thursday, July 30
A one-hour online seminar on digital tribes, and finding your digital niche.