Making the past present – the use of photographs in Amnesty International’s campaign on justice for former ‘Comfort Women.’

Although Amnesty International is not renowned for its use of photography their campaign supporting the former sexual slaves of the Japanese Imperial army during World War II is worth looking at. In particular, it is interesting to see how the images were an integral part of a well thought through lobbying strategy, which aimed to mobilize a policy response as much by a moral/emotive argument as a legalistic one. I would like to thank Katie Barraclough (East Asia Campaigner) and Wayne Minter (Audio-Visual Resource Manager) at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, and the documentary photographer Paula Allen for their generous and insightful contributions to this article. Credit is also due to Suki Nagra and Iris Cheng (former East Asia Campaigners) and the Amnesty staff and volunteers worldwide who worked tirelessly on this project).

Gaining competitive advantage in an attention deficit world
Many campaigns for social justice focus on recent or on-going abuses and inequalities. The playing field is not equal, with some issues gaining greater publicity and support based on geo-political priorities, current trends and the organizational resources behind the campaign. It is as competitive as any market place, with photo and video playing key roles in gaining media advantage. For those working on long standing issues the problem of remaining in the minds of both the public and policy makers is all the more difficult – where it is perceived that one more image of poverty or conflict has diminishing returns in regard to mobilizing outrage and activism. Often it is only footage that provides new evidence of abuses that will gain prominence. However, for those campaigning on a crime that happened over six decades ago the challenge of demonstrating its relevance today is daunting. Archival photographs tend to communicate ‘history’, which may be informative but in a highway of fast changing information is a turning easily passed-by for more contemporary matters.

Malaya Lolas (Grandmothers) of Mapanique (178 women were raped over a three-day period), The Philippines, March 2005 – copyright Paula Allen / Amnesty International

This is the situation that faced the now old women across the Asia-Pacific forced into sexual slavery to serve the Japanese Imperial army before and during World War II. Hak-soon Kim from South Korea was the first so-called ‘Comfort Woman’ to publicly break silence in 1991. Women all over Asia – including from China, East Timor, Indonesia, Philippines, and Taiwan – followed her lead and told their heartbreaking stories. Many in successive Japanese governments and right-wing interest groups would rather the issue, and the women, go away, and together form a strong international lobby group. In some respects they may get their wish, as each year that passes more of the women succumb to old age. But before all are gone there is a determination amongst them to raise their collective voice to bear witness to the crime committed against them and demand the apology and reparations they rightly deserve. As the Japanese government try to sit out growing international condemnation, campaigners try to internationalise the issue and record the testimony and demands of the women for a fight that may need to be continued by another generation when they are gone.

It is an issue that has been fought on two fronts; one overtly legalistic, making the case for Japanese state responsibility within international law; and the other, the deeply moving stories told by the women themselves about their lives. The first has failed to deliver significant results, with several cases failing to bear fruit, despite favourable rulings in a few lower courts in Japan. However, the second is beginning to mobilize a response internationally amongst politicians. It is a demonstration of the power of what is effectively a multi-media campaign in using emotive audio-visual media to create activism.

For more information on the history of sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial army in the 1930’s and 40’s check out the Korean Council.

Gil Won Ok, age 78 and Hwan Kuen Joo, age 86, shelter for former Comfort Women, Seoul, March 2005 – copyright Paula Allen / Amnesty International

Starting with the basics
In March 2004 Amnesty International (AI) launched it global campaign to ‘Stop Violence Against Women’ (SVAW). This differed from previous global campaigns in that it would last more than one year (it is currently in its 6th year) and would tackle a broad thematic issue AI had up to that point done little work on. Early on a decision was made to join forces with the former ‘Comfort Women’ in their fight for justice and planning began for a long term campaign. I should probably declare a vested interest at this point as I was part of the planning team, though hope I can still provide you with a relatively objective overview.

It would be fair to say that AI was at the time, and remains so today, ‘below the curve’ in regards to the use of photography (and other visual media) in its campaigns, and was not well prepared for its latest global venture. As Wayne Minter (Audio-Visual Resource Manager at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International) says, ‘We had very little archived photo material that was directly relevant to the overall aims of our new campaign, few contacts with, or ideas for potential sources.’

That the ‘Comfort Women’ campaign became the recipient of one of the largest photographic projects ever conceived by the International Secretariat of Amnesty International was more down to the belief, energy and dedication of the individuals involved rather than institutional planning. It is disappointing to hear from Wayne that little has changed, with nothing being developed since as ambitious or successful. Given that projects like this are commissioned relatively frequently by International Non-Government Organisations (INGOs) – such as ActionAid, Greenpeace and Oxfam – it is undoubtedly detrimental to AI’s work that it fails to maximise the benefits of such media.

So, given these infertile conditions how did the project get off the ground?

Wayne explains;

“I sent a message to all our regional research teams asking for suggestions for projects from their region which might have an audiovisual element. One of the few replies I received was from Suki Nagra, East Asia Campaigner, who suggested covering the weekly “Comfort Women” demonstrations in Seoul. We met to discuss this and developed it into a larger project to document and support the women.”

The fact that few responded to Wayne’s request may be indicative of an institutional lack of engagement with visual media as a powerful campaign tool. I should point out that at this stage AI was still publishing its traditional black and white research paper reports, though for this campaign there was the modest addition of a purple corporate cover (more on this below). If reports did include photos they were small, often poor quality and not professionally formatted. Thankfully this has now changed, with a shift in the last two years towards much more visually engaging products, driven by newly developed corporate branding and new digital publishing technology.

Can research and photography play nicely together?
It was recognised at the conception of the project that photography could be an important part of the communication tools needed to realise the campaign objectives. The ‘Comfort Women’ issue is well known in East and South East Asia but relatively unheard of in Europe and North America. Building international condemnation of the Japanese government’s failure to adequately address the demands of the women was identified as an important point of leverage. The substantial and legalistic research report was at this time seen as the primary tool to target politicians. The photos were to be used in materials for awareness raising and mobilization amongst public constituencies, a rather standard approach at the time. It was not until later that this approach changed.

Photos, with good captions or testimony, are excellent tools for telling human stories. And this is what the campaign needed to do, tell a story that many had never heard, about a time before many of them were born. People needed to connect emotionally with the women and to see that although the crimes against them had happened in the past the pain the women felt meant constituted an on-going crime that persisted today. Fundamentally, the photos needed to address several issues;

What has been forgotten – to inform the audience of a past event, and to move that event from the past to the present.

To do this they needed to show;

The Pain – what had happened to the women was an on-going violation endured for a life time. A life that for many was nearly over and had been spent in exclusion and poverty.

Urgency – despite how long ago the crimes took place a resolution remains more urgent than ever as the women’s age means that fewer and fewer will live to see justice severed.

Connection – the stories evoke great sympathy and emotion, but need to also bridge the gap with the viewers’ lives in distant countries i.e. for them to see that these women are like their mothers / grandmothers.


Active agents for change – to demonstrate the solidarity and organisation amongst the women to inspire people to act.

Despite the power of the women’s stories it was not going to be an easy task, either emotionally or logistically, as Wayne explains;

“Clearly gathering the testimonies and images meant that it just was not worth considering unless we had exactly the right photographer to work with Suki and the women. The extremely sensitive and harrowing subject matter, the age and circumstances of the women, not to mention the logistics, travel and local politics would be challenging for even the most experienced photographer. Fortunately we knew Paula Allen through her recent work with AI in Chechnya, as well as with the women of Calama, Chile (Flores en el Desierto 1999 – include link). As soon as we had discussed it with her we knew we need look no further and began planning.”

Paula agreed, “My goals, intentions and ethics were similar to AI’s and this was crucial to my acceptance of this particular offer of work. AI had used the images from the Russia trip in a manner that I approved of and I knew they respected my images and work process.”

Even then it was not plain sailing, with some scepticism on the viability of the project from several quarters within the organisation. This was frustrating yet hardly surprising as there were few comparable examples to show people. But eventually everything was in place with Suki and Paula going to South Korea and the Philippines in March 2005. Despite Wayne’s faith in the two of them he was well aware that the relationship between researcher and photographer does not always work.

“The researcher / photographer working relationship is not a natural or easy one in the best of conditions and, through experience, we have become very critically selective of when we should use it. This was the first time we had attempted a research / photo project of this scale, ambition and risk, and Suki and Paula did an incredible job for us.

Prior to leaving Paula had already begun to do her own research and preparation, working closely with Suki. This helped enormously later on. As Paula says, “The most important aspect regarding the relationship between Suki and I was that we were in agreement about the way we conducted the interviews. We had shared criteria for how the work was done: The women’s consent and safety was our number one priority. They would not be coerced into sharing; they would determine whether they wanted their stories told, and they had the right to stop an interview at anytime and request that I stop photographing or not use the images that I had made. We never began an interview without being clear about who we were, why we were there, how we anticipated using the images and testimonies, and what we hoped the outcome would be. The women were asked to sign releases at the end of each interview.

None of this could have been accomplished without both the help of local groups in all the places we travelled to who were working with the ‘Comfort Women’, and without the interpreters, who were knowledgeable and sympathetic. In Korea and the Philippines, we worked with a number of different interpreters who all were extraordinary human beings and conscientious translators. They were not just translating a conversation – it was an extremely personal testimonial. Suki and I also knew the stories of the women would deeply penetrate our psyches and bodies. It was impossible not to cry with them and absolutely right to do so. We also tried whenever possible to have a psychologist present or a person who was familiar to the women from one of the local groups or both. All the interviews were highly emotionally charged as the women were recalling in detail their experiences of constant rape – describing their abductions, the size of men’s penises, the pain, the bad smells and the fear. It did not matter that the women were recalling what had happened decades ago. Rape does not leave the psyche or the body after a specific amount of time and memories are often as fresh as the day they happened. And in addition to the original violations, many of these women had suffered isolation, shame, mental and physical ill health and poverty during their 50 years of silence.”

“As the photographer, I encountered a number of situations that were extremely impactful. I am always conscious of my desires, both to make strong images that would be most effective for the campaign, and to take care of the women while photographing. In Korea and the Philippines, the women would often remove their clothes in the middle of interviews to show the scars on their bodies as evidence of what happened to them. Many times, the scars were barely visible to me, or the camera, after so many decades, but the scars remained completely visible to the women. I hesitated in all cases, and especially in Seoul when one woman kneeled in front of me, pulled down her pants and grabbed her vagina. A psychologist was with us and indicated that it was okay for me to take a picture, and the woman, in fact, wanted me to take one. This was all part of her breaking her silence. And, I knew that Wayne and I would be very conscious and careful about using these particular images.”

Capturing good photos is one thing, but delivering images that are right for the campaign materials you plan to produce is another. Despite working with Paula before Wayne was apprehensive.

“I remember the contact sheets coming in to our office, laying them out on the display table, and sharing with the team a massive sense of elation and relief. The results were a remarkable series of photos which were impressive on a purely photographic and aesthetic level, but when used with the harrowing stories of the women, proved to be a powerful tool for advocacy and evidence. Much of the power of the photos is down to the skill and technique of the photographer. Paula has a consistently proven ability to work closely with people on sensitive subjects, over periods of time, patiently gaining their trust and building solidarity; in a way that is the antithesis of point and shoot photojournalism, and which is apparent in the results.”

“The images were effective on many levels. They challenged stereotypical images of women, and female activists. These were old Asian women, some in their nineties, many rejected by their communities and families, pursuing their cause with great vigour and dignity against a powerful, distant government determined to ignore them. The use of the photos in the region, exhibitions, in the press, and sometimes even the act of taking them, publicised the women’s struggle locally and regionally and helped to draw together and forge contacts between the various groups supporting them and their cause including local Amnesty offices in Asia. These were photos of women who had been fighting for justice for 50 years and who were now in old age. On a plain documentary level it was very important to record images of their struggle whilst it was still possible. The images helped greatly to introduce their cause to an audience in European and North America resulting in greater support and more effective lobbying and pressure on the Japanese government.”

With the photos taken and testimony recorded the campaign began to role out. Yet even with the significant level of investment so far it still proved a struggle to get a photo of some of the women protesting outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul on the cover of the research report. The reason given that it was inconsistent with the corporate purple covers designed for the campaign. Thankfully sense prevailed and the photo below took pride of place on the report.

For the first two years of the project the photos were used in relatively traditional ways – for example, on public lobbying postcards and in exhibitions. However, during a meeting in Hong Kong in February 2006 it was decided that the next phase of the campaign would focus on trying to get international government support for the women’s demands through resolutions in national and regional legislatures. Although these resolutions would not technically be detrimental to the Japanese government, if enough were passed they would be a demonstration of international condemnation towards Japan’s actions, applying pressure for a policy re-think (it was recognised that this needed to be supported by a strong domestic movement). Rather than use the research report alone it was decided to lobby individual politicians using a specially designed pamphlet featuring the photos and testimonies of the women. We would not focus primarily on the legal argument but make an emotive and moral appeal to them as people first. It was a decision that proved right as Katie Barraclough, East Asia Campaigner, explains.

“In 2007 a postcard action was launched for people to send to their national parliamentarians asking them to pass a resolution calling on the Government of Japan to accept responsibility and apologise for the ‘Comfort Women’ system. These postcards prominently featured photos of the women looking dignified and strong. One of the most popular photos was of Esmeralda Boe (deceased), a former ‘Comfort Woman’ from Memo village, Bobonaro District, Indonesia. She is clearly frail but is smiling and punching her fist in the air. She looks happy, strong and defiant at the same time.”

These actions were supported by local Amnesty offices, using their political lobbyists to gain support from a core constituency within the legislature. Targets were Canada, the European Parliament, Germany, the Netherlands, the Philippines, UK, USA. Events included a speaker’s tour with some of the former ‘Comfort Women’ giving powerful testimony and photographic exhibitions at parliaments. Media work using the photos accompanied these events, often including visits to the representative of the Japanese government in that country. The action was a success with resolutions of one kind or another being passed in all but the German parliament.

The photos continue to demonstrate their power and durability, with one being selected as the cover photo of The Wire, Amnesty International’s news magazine for members, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2009.

Although in many respects the AI campaign and how it used photography can be regarded as nothing exceptional – no great innovation either technologically or strategically – it succeeded by doing the basics well. A clear strategy that recognised the visual media necessary to achieve its objectives, and produced campaign and lobbying materials that maximised the photographs. As Paula says, “There are thousands and thousands of images telling incredible, heart- wrenching, significant stories made by well-intended photographers all over the world. There is always a difficulty is finding a ‘home’ for this type of work, a place where the images can be published respectfully and where editors who, if willing, are able to tell the stories that need to be told. As a human rights photographer, the most gratifying and fulfilling moment is seeing my images being used effectively.”

The Japanese government continues to hold its line and much work is still needed, particularly in Japan itself. However, the Japanese government’s work internationally for ‘human security’ and peace will continue to ring hollow until it deals with its own history in a fair and just manner – the former ‘Comfort Women’ have won a significant victory on that front.

All photos taken by Paula Allen and copyright of Paula Allen/Amnesty International.
For other photos of the former ‘Comfort Women’ see the work of Chris Steele-Perkins as part of the ‘Disposable People’ series for Magnum and Autograph AOB showing at;

23 May – 5 July 2009 Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle. 
1 August – 13 September 2009 New Art Exchange, Nottingham. 
7 November – 3 January 2010 Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Amnesty International ‘Comfort Women’ lobbying pamphlet AI CW Booklet_ASA2200206

Amnesty International – The Wire (Feb/March 2009) TheWire-en-0901[1]

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