Neda Agha Soltan
Neda Agha Soltan
During the animated discussion Thursday afternoon (June 21, 2012) on iconicity, I brought up the possibility that a video might be iconic in the same sense that a photo can be. I mentioned the death of a young Iranian woman who was shot by a sniper, the whole incident caught on video and broadcast on the Internet.

Her name, gone from my memory at the time, was Neda Agha Soltan, and soon after a sniper shot and killed her on June 20, 2009, she came to be known as just Neda to millions of people around the world.

The New York Times called her “a symbol of Iranian protests.” This lends a bit of credence to the idea that a video can be iconic. We seemed to be debating the actual cognitive mechanics of this, the idea that a video cannot freeze an event in our minds the way a still photo does. I know that when I thought of this event, I did remember specifically a key image, that of her lying on the ground and looking directly at the camera while blood oozed from her nose and mouth.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan’s documentary “For Neda” that appeared on HBO spoke directly to the idea that this video is iconic for this event. Be aware that the video shows the graphic cell-phone video of her death.

Many of you said you had never seen the video of Neda dying in the streets of Tehran, but does that mean the video isn’t iconic? If you give the list of 20th-Century iconic images to your students, and they say they have never seen one of them — Eisenstadt’s Times Square kiss is the one for my students — does that mean it isn’t iconic? Certainly for people in many parts of the world, this video had those iconic qualities even if it doesn’t resonate with us.

I might add that if you watch the original video in its horrible glory, you will never forget it.

Michael J. O'Donnell

Michael O'Donnell is associate professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

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  1. Michael, I’m trying to get my head around the idea of what an “iconic” video, or for that matter, image, is. When I think of something as iconic it’s hard to imagine something so disturbing (granted, I’m a wimp and just watched it for the first time). Perhaps in time, which, I think, might be a true indicator, my opinion might change.

    I appreciate you initiating the discourse on this topic.


  2. So… I think Scott has identified the crux of the matter. Just as my students conflate iconic personalities and iconic events with the idea of iconic image, Michael, you, yourself label this as an iconic EVENT. The fact may be that the video itself is not seared on the public memory—in order for that to happen, a significant percentage of people must have seen the video and been able to recall it.

    And, again, I would suggest that video does not work well with the visual/memory apparatus in our brains that constructs these instantly recalled images. Even when I try to think of films that have iconic moments, I often recall a still from the film and/or dialogue that resonates. We actually played this game the other evening—going around the table of about 9 people, challenging them to briefly describe a moment (not a still) in a film that was iconic. If you had to explain beyond your first short description, it just wasn’t iconic enough for the folks in the room. The one that seemed to “win” was the fake orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally.”

  3. If some media text comes to stand for a movement or era or event bigger than itself, it becomes a synecdoche, and I think it must be considered “iconic” in the way you use the word. If I say, for example, “Oh, the humanity!” is that iconic? I think so.
    In the case of the Neda video, I really wonder what your point is when you say “a significant percentage of people must have seen the video and been able to recall it.” Do you mean a significant percentage of Americans? This video was a key rallying point for millions of people in the Middle East, but I guess they don’t count.

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