On the Wall: How Photographers Envision Human Rights

Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1974, but immediately descended into a 27-year-long civil war between nationalist movements involving widespread abuses of human rights. In this photo, children in the Angolan capital of Luanda watch a demonstration of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) in 1975.© Sebastião Salgado
A family is separated during the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 1993.© Gilles Peress
More than 500,000 Rwandans, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were killed during a genocide that lasted approximately 100 days in 1994.© Gilles Peress
Kosovo refugees leave the border and travel down a dirt road to a refugee camp in Kukes, Albania, 1999.© Gilles Peress
Manual laborers confront a military policeman at a gold mine in the state of Pará, Brazil, 1986. This photograph is from Salgado’s series documenting conditions in one of the world’s largest gold mines.© Sebastião Salgado
A woman stands at the edge of a mass grave in the mountains of Iraqi-Kurdistan, 1992. A campaign by Iraqi forces resulted in the killing, disappearance, and relocation of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish men, women, and children in the late 1980s.© Susan Meisalas
A concrete circle marks the mass grave of 27 inhabitants of the village Koreme in Iraqi-Kurdistan, 1992. The victims were lined up and shot by Iraqi troops after trying to escape to Turkey before returning to their village to surrender.© Susan Meisalas
Members of a congregation gather at a river to celebrate a baptism in rural Coahoma County, Mississippi, 1989.© Ken Light
Jean-Marie Simon photographed the Mayan Ixil community at the height of the Guatemalan government’s scorched earth campaign in the early 1980s. This photograph captures the contours of dawn in Nebaj, Quiché, 1984.© Jean-Marie Simon
A Christian procession travels through Nebaj, one of Guatemala’s war-torn towns, 1982.© Jean-Marie Simon
Ixil schoolgirls on Independence Day, Nebaj, Guatemala, 1982. The Ixil-Maya people were victims of genocide perpetrated by the Guatemalan military under the leadership of President Efraín Ríos Montt. Widespread human rights abuses included mass killings, rape, torture, and forced displacement.© Jean-Marie Simon
Miners finish a shift at a silver mine in Cerro de Potosí, Bolivia, 1992. Children are sometimes sent into the Potosí mine to collect traces of silver and tin.© Stephen Ferry
A woman with two children and a doll stands at the base of Potosí, known as “the mountain that eats men,” 1992.© Stephen Ferry
Vika and Olesea, two women able to live in relative safety in a secret shelter for victims of sex trafficking in Moldova, 2003.© Mimi Chakarova
Cristina, a victim of sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, shows a photo of her family, 2004.© Mimi Chakarova
Like other children, a young boy in northern Uganda lives in constant danger of being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA has abducted tens of thousands of men, women, and children, subjecting them to violence and forcing them to commit violent acts. It would seem the laws that govern war and human rights have played little part here and have been ignored openly by the Lords Resistance Army, the government, its forces and the international community. It is without doubt one of the most serious and under reported humanitarian situations in the world and it is a conflict of unimaginable terror waged upon innocent people for no apparent reason. Here are the faces of some of the Acholi people who have suffered for so long. They come from two IDP camps in northern Uganda, north of Kitgum town; Mucweini and Madi-Opei. May 7, 2005.© Thomas Morley
Rose Lakue is 65 years old and married with five children. In 2002, the LRA killed her husband, abducted her eldest son, and burned down her home. May 5, 2005.© Thomas Morley
Laryong Dorotay is 80 years old and married with seven children. In April 2004 two of her children were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She and her husband were severely beaten and the family home was burned down. May 4, 2005.© Thomas Morley
African-American laborers working in Mississippi’s fields, 1992.© Ken Light

There is a flood of gory photos coming from conflict zones around the world today thanks to advancements in digital imaging and connectivity. These photos, increasingly made by perpetrators of war crimes themselves, serve to reveal injustices; yet increasingly it seems that their function has been to excite. More than ever, it's important to filter and withhold a particular representation of atrocity, in favor of another, more nuanced image. It is with this in mind that Pamela Blotner approached curating "Envisioning Human Rights," an exhibition on view through the end of October at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the HRC has made it a central tenant to look for powerful imagery to promote their cause. "Images which are resonant, which convey deeper context," says Blotner, a visual artist and educator. As curator, she shares a personal connection to the kind of work featured in the show and defines her own seminal experience as being hired by Physicians for Human Rights in 1997 to document with courtroom-style illustrations the exhumation of mass graves in Croatia and Bosnia. "We looked for people whose work had that quality of being technically beautiful, riveting, but very, very meaningful."

The exhibition includes legendary documentarians Susan Meiselas, Gilles Peress, Sebastião Salgado and seven others, with work spanning four decades, filed from the gold mines of Brazil and the farmlands of the American South to the sites of genocide in Africa, Central America, Europe, and elsewhere.

Human Rights Center

Many of the photographs included are devastating, but also beautiful, almost unsettlingly so. “When a fine artist makes art of a catastrophe or somebody else’s tragedy,” Blotner tells American Photo, drawing on her first-hand experience having illustrated such scenes, “there’s always the fear that it could be exploitive.”

Most of the featured photographers have long relationships contributing to the HRC. Every photographer in this exhibit Blotner says, "is someone who doesn’t just parachute in, but someone who has spent a lot of time and energy and investment into being there."

“Without showing explicit violence,” images like Thomas Morley’s ‘Acholi Boy with Toy Gun’ (slide 16), “shows potential for violence and lives being wrecked.” Susan Meiselas’ photograph of a widow contemplating the bones of her relatives at a mass grave in Iraq (slide 6), undoubtedly one of the most difficult to look at of the set, is nonetheless compelling for it’s ability to convey “beauty and dignity and resilience.”

All the work in the exhibition is available for purchase until Oct. 13, 2014 at which point it will be auctioned online via Paddle8. All proceeds go back to support human rights causes, which nonetheless raises a number of questions. Do pictures of mass graves belong in a private collection, on a wall, in a home? What kind of person might buy a collectable print representing a mass grave, and what might they do with it?

"I can’t imagine photographs like those hanging above a family’s dining table," says Blotner, "but they might be in some quiet room where individuals would go to meditate, to think about these things and to feel the privilege of being alive and being able to contribute toward preventing them."

"Envisioning Human Rights" will be on view at UC Berkeley School of Law through Oct. 31, 2014, open to the public Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. For more information visit EnvisioningHumanRights.com.

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