This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 21, 2015. Click here for the original version
To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt – Susan Sontag
On the 13th of July 2015, a sizeable chunk of the globe’s youth population, marked at more than a 100 million, witnessed live scenes from a part of the world that is also the birthplace of a popular yet widely misunderstood religion – Mecca (or Makkah) in Saudi Arabia. The date coincided with the 27th night of Ramadan – the most blessed night in the Islamic tradition, and a time where Muslims try and spend the bulk of the night in prayer and supplication. On this night, a staggering 2 million people were estimated to have been at the Grand Mosque, and they were joined by a proliferating Snapchat community through the media platform’s ‘Live Stories’ feature.
According to Snapchat’s website –
“Live Stories are a curated stream of user submitted Snaps from various locations and events. Users who have their location services on at the same event location will be given the option to contribute Snaps to the Live Story. The end result is a Story told from a community perspective with lots of different points view”
The Live Story from Mecca – couched in #Mecca_Live – did not just create points of view, but also broke existing ones. Pilgrimages to the heart of Saudi Arabia – the country home to Mecca – have exponentially risen in statistical feat over the years, often warranting massive expansion work to accommodate the numbers. What it was unable to capture so far for the global audience was the individual relationship of pilgrims with the place and the stories that a moment at Mecca can weave. Coming at the back of some controversy hours prior to #Mecca_Live went viral, this movement rose as the Muslim world’s rare opportunity to steal the narrative from mainstream media’s violence & extremism show-reel, and tell the story of a religion little understood through the lens of people who lived the faith on the most auspicious night.
Mecca in Snapchat pictures – a compilation of the #Mecca_Live Story
The background story – what made #Mecca_Live click
- Media’s manufactured consent
We have stories that define our lives, and then stories that define story-telling. The mainstream media with its political and editorial baggage has often been vehemently criticized for portraying Islam in a grim light. Though sometimes valid news, the majority of its airtime and newspaper space consists of covering violent acts with marked enthusiasm and profiling self-professed ‘Islamic’ terrorists. This in turn has bred a strong aversion amidst the majority moderate Muslims and deep cynicism of their agenda. It’s common to spot ‘what media won’t tell you’ posts that celebrate the many moments of glory for the faith of over 1.6 billion.
- A window for the youth
The generation of yesteryears risk bringing their preconceived prejudices to organised religion. The young, on the other hand, are open to sharing and embracing new ideologies, even as they form their own independent ones. Across all platforms, Snapchat has the highest active users who belong to the quintessential Generation Y – making it a luring channel for brand communication and media houses alike.
What is an elderly’s morning with The New York Time’s editorial section is another lad’s Snapchat session the whole day in real time. The editorial pages of a paper are what the government, PR machinery and advertisers want it to be while Snapchat is what people want it to produce. The result is greater response to snaps and a willingness to share amongst the community.
The reactions to #Mecca_Live quickly leapt up in popularity as much as the hashtag –
- Mecca makes for great pictures
Religions and rituals provide great photo & video opportunities. Some of India’s greatest photographers would have in their portfolio a moment captured from one of many public festivals of the country. Being a communal religion, Islam’s imagery evokes large gatherings and synchronisation of much of its rituals. In a world of individual selfies and single-frame sunsets, pictures and short-format videos of all imaginable races and nationalities gathered in prayer and the circumambulation around the Ka’aba – believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael – is a scintillating treat for the eyes.
Everybody loves stories
Especially when you have 2 million people playing protagonists to it. Controversies, conspiracy and ominous facts presented by mainstream media breeds more of the three things mentioned. Islam has been riddled with challenges and controversies over one’s outfit to a Muslim’s relation with violence in the world. In such times, showing the human side of the wider picture and a wider picture of the human side is not just pleasing to the eyes, but also intriguing to the mind. The fact that Mecca is restricted to people of a faith also adds to its interest & intrigue. Stories like these convey greatness in ordinary lives opposed to the sensation of a few incidences. They are the conjunctions at a time rife with interrogatory exclamations and question marks.
Snapchat’s Live Story captured little moments from Mecca that contributed to one grand moment of truth that escapes the usual narrative – unity. The compelling images lived through the lens of smartphones allowed the viewer to interpret what leads to that moment on camera, and what follows after the video stops.
And for once, this interpretation was not led by the suggestive powers and motives of the ‘Fourth Estate’.