In my experience lawyers are not usually that open to the impact visual media can have on improving human rights. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends and colleagues are lawyers and they know all the technical stuff that baffles my brain. However, unless I come to them with some forensic photos they are not so interested. So, you can imagine how excited I was to see this story on two Mexican lawyers who successfully got a murder conviction against an innocent man overturned by filming his re-trial.
A Great Story
Layda Negrete and Roberto Hernández took the case of Antonio Zuñiga, a street vendor who was arrested for murder while out for a walk in December 2005. Antonio had been convicted but the lawyers managed to get a retrial because his original lawyer was a fake! Knowing that the system was a bit rubbish they asked if they could film the trial, which turned out to be no better than the first, upholding the conviction of Antonio!
However, with video footage in hand they approached the appeals court who were so shocked by what they saw they over turned the conviction. But that was not all, Negrete and Hernández went on to make several films and presentations using trial and interview footage combined with research data to demonstrate the failings of the justice system and need for reforms. With this they helped lobby for constitutional changes by showing them to key decision makers and those with influence, eventually achieving success in June 2008.
The documentary, ‘Presumed Guilty‘, about Zuñiga’s trial was funded by the Hewlett Foundation.
“The film provided a very powerful platform for the research data itself,” said C. R. Hibbs, program officer and managing director for Mexico for Hewlett’s Global Development Program. “It provided much wider impact than we would be able to get from funding the research alone.”
More than an illustration
So often in my work with researchers and legal professionals I find that photographs are seen as an added extra. Nice, but not necessary – good for the cover of a report or inside to break up the text. Video can be useful for testimony but is rarely gathered. What strikes me about this story of the two Mexican lawyers is they recognised the fundemental power of communication tools – they asked themselves the question, ‘what is the best way for us to get our message across?‘ They had a load of research data, and most would have been happy with that, displayed in a dry PowerPoint presentation or briefing document. But they focussed on impact, and for that they knew the value of real world examples delivered by those people whose lives were touched. And it worked.
When researchers are snowed under trying to gather information and communicate with contacts around the world they are understandably not so open to trying new things without knowing their utility. Equally, managers trying to run their programmes with limited budget are not going to fork out substantial amounts on untested techniques. In my view what is lacking is not the will or imagination, but the insight, examples and support in order for people to know what is available and how it can work. Only then can they make informed and innovative decisions. This support needs to be institutional, in an NGO, otherwise it will always come down to individual’s knowledge of what is possible. Training for staff on how video, photography and other visual media is and can be used would go a long way to improving the way these tools are used in social activism.
This could include basic training for researchers and campaigners on how to use cameras and camcorders; how to plan the communications for your campaign, including working with professional photographers and film makers; what tools are available and how they can be delivered (especially via the internet); and basics on ethics, visual language, consent and representation (includng the use of participatory methods).
Get all that up and running and I think you may be on to a winner.
Thanks to the excellent Wronging Rights blog for bring this to my attention. For more on this story click here.
Filed under: Campaigning, Film | Tagged: Americas, Caribbean&Central America, fair trial, Mexico, research | Leave a Comment »