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Human Rights Day

From "Foundation Rwanda" by Jonathan Togorvnik

From "Foundation Rwanda"

It is now sixty years since the acceptance by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It gives one pause.

Over the last twenty years many documentary photographers have turned their attention to human rights, partnering with NGOs or starting their own foundations after observing injustices. The role of witness, so pivotal previously, has been tempered by the realization that witnessing can border on voyeurism if nothing is done to alleviate the horrors one is recording. Publication in a newspaper or magazine may not be enough if the public response is passive and governments do not react. The collaborating NGO or foundation can step in to try and actually make things better for at least some of the people in the pictures.

There are numerous examples of this, including photographer Jonathan Togorvnik’s Foundation Rwanda to help women and their children born from rape during the genocide there, facilitating health care and education; the late David Jiranek’s Rwanda Project which gives cameras to orphans and sells prints to pay for high school; Magnum’s Access to Life on the impact of life-saving drugs for people with AIDS in partnership with the Global Fund; Sebastião Salgado’s End of Polio collaboration with UNICEF, WHO, Rotary International and the Centers for Disease Control to end the disease globally (or his Instituto Terra project led by his wife Lélia to help restore part of the Atlantic Rain Forest in Brazil), etc.

But what is distressing in this new world of billions of images is how inconsequential photographs have become in terms of the more traditional sense of witnessing world events. The war in Iraq still seems vague and far away, with few images other than from Abu Ghraib or the grievously wounded veterans returning to the United States making all that much of an impact here. The war in Afghanistan seems even more distant. The horrors in Congo or in Darfur seem barely assimilated here (although the reader responses to Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay’s photograph of two refugee girls and his search to reunite the family is a hopeful exception).

Even the current global economic failure is hardly being seen in terms of its disastrous effect on people’s everyday lives and their dreams. Why? Certainly there is “compassion fatigue,” the overload of distressing imagery. Who can respond when there is always a surfeit of disaster? And who wants to respond when the imagery is of people far away, when there is little political will to do anything, and when the publication of such imagery is tainted by its association with self-interested media that too often use photography’s shock value to sell themselves? It’s a powerful series of motivations for a viewer to do nothing.

The effect is different when the imagery is connected to something more local, where people feel they have more at stake personally and where their actions might make more of a difference. If it is a picture of one’s neighbor in trouble, or a family member, the chances are better that viewers will respond. How can we transfer that sense of caring to those we do not already know? I still feel more empathy for the Vietnamese embroiled in conflict in the 1970s than I do for Afghanis in 2008. It should not be that way.

The continued viability of the photographer as witness is at least as fundamental a question as one addressing the economic viability of the media. It would be good if more people ask it, and attempt somehow to satisfactorily answer it. We do need to see what’s going on as we try to move forward.

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