Notes on the Death of Neda Agha-Soltan

A Spanish soldier, arms flung wide, falling in death after being shot in the chest on the Cordoba Front. A young Vietnamese girl running, naked, down a street, her body burned by napalm. A Vietnamese man in a plaid shirt, hands behind his back, wincing in the moment before he is shot in the head by a man holding a pistol. A Chinese man in a white shirt, carrying two bags, standing in front of a line of tanks. A hooded prisoner balanced on a box, wires attached to his hands. And, now, a young Iranian woman, shot in the heart by a sniper and bleeding to death on the side of the road.

"The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one," Susan Sontag wrote in 2004, following the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs and videos. Today, even more than when she wrote those words, the Internet, cell phones, and cable TV have made that museum all-access, and open 24 hours. Within hours of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot when she got out of her car amid antigovernment protests in Tehran on Saturday, graphic videos of the final seconds of her life were available on YouTube, and being broadcast repeatedly by CNN and other news channels. The New York Times printed stills from the video of Agha-Soltan lying on the ground with her eyes open, with captions describing "blood gushing from her body."

Agha-Soltan has become the face of the still-unfolding protests in Iran, just as the Spanish soldier has become the face of the Spanish Civil War, and the Vietnamese girl has become the face of the Vietnam War. But does that mean it's important for us to watch the video of her death? "As painful as it is, I think it's good for the world to see what the Iranian regime is doing," says Peter Davis, director of Hearts and Minds, a Vietnam War documentary that included previously unseen footage of the girl burned by napalm and the man executed in the street. Davis says he included the footage because he wanted to convey the experience of war as fully as possible, and thinks the film of Agha-Soltan being shot accomplishes the same goal. "It's not as though I was in favor of the ayatollahs before I saw that image, but seeing it makes me realize how vicious they are willing to be against their own people, and how much objection there is to their regime," he says.

Davis's point, that a single image can bring home the realities of war in a way no sets of statistics or analyses can, makes a strong case for watching the video rather than just reading about it. President Obama has viewed it, and said he found it "heartbreaking." On blogs and in the comments sections of online news stories, readers write about being moved to tears by the video, unable to watch, yet unable to look away. The video gives a face to other, less-public beatings and killings of opposition supporters, and makes the conflict inescapably real. Still, I have to wonder if its endless dissemination is doing us good, or harm.

I haven't watched the video. I'm sure it would horrify me, but I'm not sure it would help me understand what the protests are actually about, and I worry about the danger of confusing horror with comprehension. Sitting in front of my television or computer and watching Agha-Soltan die does nothing to change the situation in Iran; conversely, it's not necessary for me to watch the video to understand the situation needs to be changed. Looking at a screen is a passive experience, not a political act.

Images can be as deceptive as words – in some ways, even more so, in the ease with which a part can come to stand for a not entirely related whole. Which side was Capa's Spanish soldier fighting for? Who dropped the napalm that burned the little girl? Who is the soldier holding the gun to the Vietnamese man's head, and why is he being shot? The man in front of the tanks eventually climbs up and talks to the tank's driver. What does he say? What is the driver's response? The answers to these questions don't matter if the images are only meant to convey the human cost of political conflict in the broadest terms. But if they are meant to give insight into the specific conflicts they represent, the answers do matter, and the answers can only be found beyond the edges of the frames.

If, then, the video of Agha-Soltan's death doesn't actually help us understand the protests in Iran, why do the networks continue playing it, and why do we watch? Why did people send around video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's murder, or look up photos from the Columbine shootings online? Our fascination with visual representations of the moment of death goes back at least to Renaissance times, when painters such as Caravaggio graphically depicted the martyrdom of Biblical figures like John the Baptist. Two decades later, Goya's painting of the execution of Spanish loyalists by Napoleon's army vividly conveyed the fear and resignation of the Spanish rebels. Today, we are inundated with images of simulated death – in movies, on TV hospital and crime dramas, in video games. Still, depictions of actual deaths haven't lost their power to shock and, at the same time, attract. More than one person I talked to about the Agha-Soltan video compared it to a snuff film. "I think there can be a pornographic side to it when you are vicariously experiencing another person's suffering and cruelty," Davis says. Certainly, there is something prurient in the TV stations airing the video repeatedly, daring us to look away.

In a press conference, President Obama referred to Agha-Soltan's death when he said "we've experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the street. While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history." But history is made up of more than decontextualized images, even in the Western memory museum. If we want to make sense of our past, and understand our present, we have to do more than just watch.