In 2014 a series of iconic beheading videos surfaced on YouTube. Viewed by millions, these videos became quickly identifiable for their rolling desert landscapes, piercing blue sky, orange-clad kneeling victim, and an articulate host nicknamed Jihadi John. I cannot think of any image more associated with our vague notion of ISIS and its undefined territory than the balaclava-clad face of Jihadi John pointing his knife at us, standing somewhere in a desert of the Middle East. His interchangeable victims (James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto) are his bright orange prop as he recites in a London accent threats and demands. These videos have been endlessly analyzed, deconstructed and parodied, instantaneously repackaged by the media, and have even found a home in the world of art. They suggest a return to something far more real than popular media has ever been able to offer us. However, a persistent debate emerged along these videos claiming that they were staged in front of a green screen. When I take a closer look at these videos, it seems the desert he stands in is not quite real: the dunes are too caricaturish, the sand is too bright. It is hard to imagine why the videos would need to be staged at all.
Published version: https://thehmm.nl/the-simulated-real/