The main aim of this project is to explore how photography contributes towards human rights and how it can be better integrated into campaigning. I hope that over time the blog will bring together a host of resources, info, interviews and articles from the realm where human rights and photography come together. Because this is a ‘learning by doing’ enterprise I particularly encourage comment, suggestions and contributions to supplement this ‘one man band’, so to speak. So, if you know of examples that you think should be shared please feel free to send them my way.
To kick things off I am going to share with you the work I have been involved in recently as I think it illustrates some key issues in regards to the use of photography in human rights work.
Over the last four weeks I have been working with Advocacy Forum-Nepal (AF) – a human rights NGO specialising in using legal mechanisms to achieve prosecutions of perpetrators, and to work for international human rights standards to be incorporated into domestic law. AF does not generally run public campaigns in the classic sense (though does engage in some direct government lobbying). However, it is looking at utilising public campaign tactics more to compliment its already excellent work in the legal advocacy field.
My work with AF has focussed on the emblematic case of Maina Sunuwar, a 15 year-old girl who was tortured and killed in army custody on 17 February 2004. Five years of high profile work – predominantly aimed at progressing the case through Nepal’s legal system – has resulted in incremental gains towards prosecuting those responsible. Yet, despite this there have been no arrests or trials to date. The story of Maina is illustrative of thousands of individuals unable to claim justice due to obstructions to the legal system through political interference and non-cooperation by the military and police.
Given this situation it was decided that a more concerted public campaign was needed to mark the 5th anniversary of Maina’s killing. In particular, a communication strategy that connected with key target audiences – explaining what has happened and what needs to be done – was developed. As well as using language that was understandable to the majority – so cutting down on words like ‘impunity’ – it was decided to use personal emotive messaging across campaign outputs – so emphasizing ‘family’ ‘unfair’ ‘child’ and using the metaphor of ‘dying justice’ to explain that a lack of prosecutions was undermining the legal system and fuelling violence.
Outputs were developed in line with the communications brief – including an emotive image [for use on the web and postcard], video clip [for web], a launch ‘stunt’ [supported by national and international media work].
Converting image message into action
Two full length films have been made that feature Maina’s story and the campaign by her mother, Devi, for justice. Both ‘Sari Soldiers‘ and ‘Maina‘ are compelling and moving, and have the potential to reach a wide audience. It is not clear at present how the makers of these films will attempt to convert increased knowledge and concern into mobilising people to take action. More on this as it develops. Just briefly, the issue of ‘conversion’ – moving people from knowledge to action – is a key issue I will come back to. So, for example, how a photo exhibition should provide an outlet for people who view it to do something if desirable. For photography with a social / human rights focus to maximise its contribution to change it is my opinion that it needs to convert the viewers interaction with the image into action. A photo exhibition that leaves the viewer informed and moved but fails to offer channels to make a difference (or even learn more about the issue) has wasted an opportunity.
With this in mind I wanted to ensure that the image we created for the work on Maina would provide people with an outlet to take action. We decided on a hardcopy postcard as internet access in Nepal is limited, as well as wanting the visual impact of being able to collect thousands of cards for delivery to the Prime Minister. However, we also wanted the image to be used on-line by INGOs as a web-action in countries where internet access is high and on-line activism is well established. Thus linking with the website of the Asian Human Rights Commission who are running a web action on the case, the WITNESS Hub, and REDRESS.
The original idea for the image was to feature Devi with the skeletal remains of her daughter which are kept at a local hospital. Even at the conception stage we knew this could be controversial, but as such would create a very strong image that would gain widespread attention. After five years of campaigning it was thought that our target audience needed a ‘kick’ to be shocked out of its present apathy.
Controversy is a tricky wave to ride – it can create wider media and public attention to the issues you are trying to raise, even if you receive majority criticism for what you did. To paraphrase one campaigner I worked with at Amnesty, ‘It can put you in the place you want to be’ i.e. the centre of attention. However, there is always the risk it can back-fire, cause a back-lash, or just plain disengage your target audience from taking action. With the web controversial images spread fast and have a habit of not going away. Damage limitation can be time consuming and detract from your campaign.
The issue of exploitation is also raised – amongst both photographers and NGOs/activist – where their campaign agenda can be seen to be, rightly or wrongly, exploiting the individuals they are working with to claim justice. This can take place by not including the individuals in the decision making and creative process – how they wish to represent themselves and their cause – to coercing them into action they may feel uncomfortable with through a feeling of obligation or desperation. In addition, the content of images becomes a delicate balance – whether you provoke sympathy, empathy or outrage but at the same time present the individuals as disempowered, or conversely present an image that people are not moved by.
Consent and ethics are not black and white – when we are informed, as best we can be, we are making a judgement at that point in time. We cannot be assured of the outcomes. Or how we will feel about this decision in 5 or 10 years time – when the image may be forever archived on the web, or be used in ways it was not originally intended or agreed upon. With the web an image become international, and what may be acceptable in one country/culture may not be in another.
In the production of the image of Maina/Devi we not only had to deal with the issue of whether shooting the photo of Maina’s remains would be too traumatic for Devi, but whether such as image would re-traumatise her in future? The medical professional involved in the process stated that it was medically unethical to use the image of the remains for such public campaign work, despite consent. However, I do not totally agree. Yes, images of the dead are often used inappropriately and exploit the victim and their loved ones. However, I do not believe a blanket position is desirable. Certainly, in the world of photojournalism, sanitizing the world of images of violence would disguise the horrors of war – though balance is needed not to desensitize your audience. I feel the priority of medical ethics should be protection of the family, not to make decisions on how appropriate it is to use such an image once informed consent is given. Then it becomes the call of the photographer / activists on whether, despite consent, this is the most effective image to use in a given case. I would particularly welcome comment on this issue from those who have worked on this issue and are more informed on this than I am.
In the end we did not take the photo of Maina’s remains, instead using a screen shot from the film of the exhumation. Even then the image made staff at Advocacy Forum uncomfortable for many reasons. This resulted in the final image having a ‘censor’ block over the majority of the skeletal remains. This allowed us to address controversy and ethical questions, but also add another campaign message. I am copying the ‘censor’ box text below.
This image of the skeletal remains of Maina Sunuwar has been censored in respect for your sensitivities. Unfortunately, the similar respect has yet to be given to the families of the ‘disappeared’ and those they have lost. Thousands still do not know the fate of their loved ones, have not been able to conduct last rites, nor have those responsible been brought to justice.
To see the final image click here.
Composition and process
In the image I wanted to show what a strong woman Devi is. But to also show the pain she has suffered. Using the original idea from a colleague we kept things very simple, having Devi hold a photo of Maina when she was alive next to a white projection screen where we could place the screen shot of the remains afterwards. Even so, the shoot was emotional and thus cut short. Prior to the shoot we sat with Devi and explained the concept and continually fed back to her by showing her the shots. We talked about how the image would be used, the implications of what it would mean for it to be used on the web, and provided a consent form in Nepali for her to sign off on the final image. I talked to Devi several days later and she told me she was very pleased with the final postcard.
We later shot a short video with Devi using a similar set up, though did not include the image of Maina’s remains.
Of course, the proof is in the eating, and we still need to evaluate how the image has registered with the target audience. The postcard will be distributed over the next month in Nepal, and the image used internationally. More on this later.
Filed under: Campaigning | Tagged: Asia, disappearances, impunity, Nepal, postcard, South Asia | Leave a Comment »