‘Real lives are like novels not legal documents’ – How NGOs should be using photos and video in social activism.

I know, I know, its a bit of a headline title but as this article rounds of one year dedicated to looking at the use of photography, video and all that other visual stuff used in social activism I thought it appropriate to end with a grand claim. But to be honest with you I can’t answer the question of ‘How NGOs should be using photos and video in social activism‘. Not that you needed telling that because, as regular readers will know this just takes us back to all that ‘does dieting work‘ absurdity. The other reason is, despite having looked at hundreds of examples of visuals put into the service of social activism, I feel that the answer will always be evolving. This is particularly the case at present with the explosion of possibilities offered by the digital revolution and Web 2.0. We are like frontiers men in new territory (minus the genocide of indigenous people that is, unless that is photographic film…hmmm probabaly wise to leave this metaphor alone).

I started The Rights Exposure Project blog in February 2009 in an attempt to answer two questions. One of them is;

How can I use visual media better in my work as a human rights campaigner?

Eight years working at Amnesty International in London is enough for me to say with some authority that both personally and as an organisation we are not using visual media as well as we could. I do not mean that we are not using enough photos and video (though sometimes we do not), or that they are not of an adequate quality (though sometimes they are not), but that we have failed to recognise the true power of these media as a tool to increase the impact of our work. We are effectively tying one arm behind our backs. Our one good arm (the most widely staffed and funded) remains the tried and tested research that Amnesty International is known for. Presented as written reports, the organisation must bang out around one hundred of these every year (a quick search on the Amnesty library turns up 119 written reports verses 13 audio-visual products in 2009), year after year, sending them off to governments, business leaders, academics, NGOs and the media. These are accompanied by numerous press releases and briefing papers. All good stuff, a veritable production line of evidence documenting human rights abuses across the globe delivered directly to those with the power to make the required changes, assuming there is the necessary political will.

The problem is this is a bit like launching a new soap powder on the market, packaged in a white box, without an advertising campaign and hidden on the bottom shelf of the supermarket aisle. OK, Amnesty International has moved on in the last couple of years from its traditional un-illustrated ‘white cover’ reports, but a couple of colour photos does not constitute a strategic use of visual media. Nor do the glossy pamphlets or other action related materials that have been developed in recent years. And that is what concerns me – why are we spending such energy and resources on documenting in text human rights abuses and then failing to think creatively and intelligently about the communication mechanisms to influence our audiences, and invest in the skills and tools to do this? I should say at this point that Amnesty International is not alone in this, and in fact much of what I have written above probably applies to most INGOs and NGOs, as well as IGOs like the UN (though the report card across the different humanitarian agencies varies considerably).

The second question is this;

‘When the world is so complex and three dimensional why are the photos and videos we use so narrowly focused and one dimensional?’

Now, equally this is hardly a criticism of Amnesty International, or the NGO world for that matter, as photojournalism has come in for the same criticism. The way the media and the development sector has pictured famine, particularly in the late 80’s and early 90’s is well documented and critiqued, particularly by academics like Professor of Cultural and Political Geography at Durham University (UK) David Campbell and POLIS Research Director, Prof. Lilie Choularki at the LSE (UK) to name but two. Under this criticism the visual pendulum swung from stick thin African women and children in scenes reminiscent of Biblical disasters, to smiling and happy women and children as the recipients of development assistance, usually standing round a water pump or newly constructed school. The positive images may be easier to stomach and go some way to counter what is perceived as ‘compassion fatigue’(or maybe more accurately ‘Lack of solution fatigue’) but they still fail in two key areas;

1) They are unable to illustrate the complexity of the lived experience of those they intended to help. As such they hide the fundamental causes of the problem and so distorted the limits of such interventions (Chouliaraki Post-humanitarianism: Humanitarian Communication: Beyond a Politics of Pity in International Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 13 Nr. 1, Jan. 2010; 2).

2)Positive images are supposed to demonstrate the agency of the individuals they picture and present them with dignity, however the power relations between the subjects, photographers, NGOs, as well as in their own societies, remains unequal. The methods used fail to empower and facilitate the rights holders to speak for themselves.

If you think that these issues have been addressed since the 1990’s then I recommend you look again. Whole swathes of people with good intentions are blissfully unaware of the debate let alone close to integrating changes into their work. This is particularly the case in newly expanding NGO markets in countries such as South Korea and Japan who have been rather ignored in the rush of academic critiques focussing on European neo-colonialism. Dominated by Christian led organisations we see images that appear to fall into the same traps their Western counterparts did a couple of decades ago.

It was with these two questions in mind I decided to dedicate one year to try and learn more about how we can do things better by looking at what others are already doing. This has involved speaking with journalists, photographers, NGO staff and academics, as well as meeting with rights claimants working with visual media. Through this I have built up this blog as a resource to help others with similar questions and spark debate. The good news is that there is some good stuff out there. However, the bad news is that there is a great deal of dross. Picking through it all has proved time consuming, especially at times when my internet connection has been far from speedy!

One problem I have found looking at the use of visual media in social activism is that it is so diverse – paintings & cartoons, maps & diagrams, promo videos & documentary films, photo realism & constructed images – it makes it difficult to know where to start. It also makes it difficult to compare different products as they have different audiences, objectives and delivery platforms. For example, short cinema ads tend to generalise and aim for high impact due to time constraints and an uncategorised audience – and as such can come in for more criticism.  Judging their impact is near impossible from outside an organisation and much of the on-line debate is amongst those working in the sector and based on opinion rather than an analysis of the audiences response. Often we may not like the product but this does not mean it does not achieve its aim.

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