The exhibition Human Rights Human Wrongs, currently on view at The Photographers’ Gallery, features more than 200 original press prints, drawn from the prestigious Black Star collection of twentieth century photoreportage.
The exhibition explores what role such images play in helping us understand the case for human rights, and further addresses the legacy of how photographs have historically functioned in raising awareness of international conflict. Here, Mark Sealy, the curator of the exhibition, focuses on some of the historical context and background to the exhibition.
The guiding principle for this exhibition is Article Six of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proposes, “ Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere, as a person before the law”. Through this presentation, I specifically wanted to question what this human right to recognition actually means –especially today – and to make audiences really think about how such recognition is generated and controlled, particularly in terms of image production and circulation.
In essence, I wanted to unpick an essentially imperialist notion of power and examine the mechanics of how such notions work. So much of the world, in terms of how we understand it, and specifically in terms of the imagery we are presented with, is conceived from a very particular tradition of Eurocentric concerns, and any enquiry into photojournalistic practice and its impact on humanitarian objectives, has to necessarily interrogate not only the kind of images we are presented with, but where, when and how they are distributed.
Fundamental to the structure of the exhibition was also the desire to move away from presenting a didactic or linear perspective on history. Seeing things in isolation can be really problematic and so I wanted to unhinge some of our so-called definitive moments and set them within a wider, more relative framework. For example, we often talk about the Civil Rights Movement as if it was a localised incident, but it’s vital to consider it within the larger context of African liberation struggles more generally; to understand the simultaneous efforts and other political objectives towards freedom and democracy at play in different parts of the world and to recognise the shared ideological struggle behind these movements.
In the same vein, it felt important to work against the notion of any event or movement being symbolised by a single photograph. So here we display the wider sequence of images around the more ubiquitous or celebrated shots generally distributed, with the aim to show that the ‘iconic’ image is rarely the result of a single decisive moment, but will have been drawn from a series of frames, a variety of lenses, a range of viewpoints. What we are most often presented with is the result of a hugely effective and pervasive image production industry, with photographs conceived and framed with a particular destination in mind, whether that be for a newspaper, or for the cover of a magazine, or a double page spread in a publication such as LIFE – which for many photographers during the 60s and 70s represented the ultimate destination and employer. Fundamentally, I wanted to expose a definite conditioning towards a western media perspective, which has had a huge effect on our reading and understanding of world events.
There’s also a huge bias towards a received and dominant visual tradition. If you look at the images on view here, a very definite pattern starts to emerge. Typically, Western soldiers are photographed in Christian poses, framed like dying Christs on crosses; whilst the African soldier is presented as a savage who needs to be tamed; a renegade who fights his war outside of the rules of conflict, outside the Geneva Convention. These references create very specific meaning and values, yet conditioned as we are, we’re largely unconscious of their effect.
It’s incredible, for example, that in one year alone, 1960, seventeen African countries were liberated, and yet these hugely significant resistance movements are summed up in through very few images, of a particular type, carrying very codified messages. There’s the previously mentioned ‘African soldier as tribal beast’, then there’s the ‘African with his hand out begging for benevolence’ or most commonly the classic image of the ‘starving African child and mother’ all representing the grief and tragedy of a nation. Rather than a series of seventeen different post- colonial stories, Africa becomes a symbol, reduced to a few signature frames, infinitely reproducible over time.
There’s an aspect of the exhibition that specifically looks at the way the black body is represented in conflict. The way photojournalism deals with the racialised subject is an important inquiry and one I wanted to draw attention to because it seems to me that the black figure, the non-European subject, is often photographed in the most broken of conditions. It is almost as if it is visually acceptable to look at these people in the most debased of scenarios; whereas there is an absence of images that show us the European subject on the edge of life in the same way. So we can see that there is a definite hierarchy at play as to who sees who and how we engage with the actual subject in the frame.
It’s also felt imperative to look at the way violence is photographed and how our responses are mediated. When faced with the intense tragedy and horror conveyed by images from the Vietnam War, for instance, it’s often difficult to engage with an individual soldier’s story or even to consider the impact on an individual. However, within this exhibition, there’s a rare and critical set of photographs that actually have the testimonials of the soldier(s) portrayed, inscribed on the print itself. Having access to the confessional voice of a soldier just after he has killed a Vietnamese or Vietcong soldier delivers a direct sense of the personal trauma and changes our relationship to the image and the event. It also conveys a vivid sense of the velocity, the speed of the violence that occurs in such a moment.
The nature of relationships that develop within conflict make up another important sequence of images in the exhibition and form an important element within the show. Clearly, in war zones like Vietnam the connection between the indigenous people and the soldiers can only be complex, and when we look at images of American GIs and local women the tensions at play within these interactions is quite evident.
The legacy of those relationships is part and parcel of what conflict is all about; the intimacy that develops, the exchanges, whether they are paid for or actual, foreground what it means to be both a soldier in conflict and the subject of an occupying forces desire.The show is also punctuated with portraits of people who have won Nobel Peace Prizes to provoke thinking about the constitution of peace and to question why we give peace a prize. Additionally, I wanted to draw attention to some of the more paradoxical moments when such a prize might be given.
For example Henry Kissinger is a noted Nobel Prize winner, as is bishop Desmond Tutu and too, Rigoberta Menchú Tum. Each of them has played – as far as the Nobel Peace Prize is concerned – significant roles in developing an idea of peace. And yet, whilst Bishop Tutu and Riboberta are universally popular and unlikely to be contested recipients, the award to Henry Kissinger, whichever way you look at it, is somewhat paradoxical. And there are other Nobel Peace Prize winners that are also more difficult to associate with the peace process. So by putting these various characters together, whether Jimmy Carter or President Sadat, I’m hopefully raising questions about the nature of developing peace, and also what in theory the absolute prize could or should be.
Tragically, or even necessarily, the ultimate destination for the work people have done in peace is of course death, so there is also a provocation about the price as well as the prize of peace. One of the things you will notice within the presentation is that there are a lot of images of people waiting. Within the archive there are of course incredible moments of activity: of people engaging with conflict, with each other, of attacks, of rocks being thrown, of people literally setting fire to themselves. I didn’t want this exhibition to be solely about those heightened dramatic moments.
The idea of watching and waiting as marches go by, as politics unfold, of simply not understanding what is being presented to you in that moment, is equally important within this exhibition. Showing images of people in moments of stasis reflected an undercurrent idea about waiting for change, even if they don’t know what the future will be.Although the question of who is taking the photographs is clearly important, when conceiving this exhibition I was less interested in authorship than in the ideas and forces in play behind them. In one of the vitrines, there’s a series of graphic photographs showing the atrocitiesof the Nazi regime that were reproduced in LIFE magazine on 7 May 1945.
Clearly the explicit intention was to bring the readers closer to the horrific and brutal reality of mass genocide but I believe they also had an additional, more implicit function because of their placing within this specific issue. This particular photographic sequence pre-empts a feature focused on the San Francisco Conference set up to reconstitute the United Nations.To my mind the contextualisation of the graphic images had a direct bearing on the reframing of what peace might look like in the future. This is substantiated by human rights historians, who cite the appearance of these images during the conference as being hugely influential on the international delegates invited to help shape the new global future.
These images then were seismic in their influence and catalytic in terms of showing how images work towards changing the very nature of what a future world could look like.What I want people to think about is how knowledge and transfer of ideas are enabled; the epistemic value of what the photograph could be; to point to the paradoxes of violence; to look at the different cultural and ideological exchanges that occur throughout these works. I also wanted to compress time, to remind us that most of the events shown happened within living memory.Which brings me back to Article Six and its ongoing significance. Clearly the right to recognition should indeed be the basic entitlement of everyone, but I hope this exhibition shows how complex it is to gain rightful and effective recognition. And, at a time when vast swathes of people – the refugee, the asylum seeker, the economic migrant – have no rights at all, are in fact ‘no- ones’, it seems a matter of extreme urgency to consider political humanitarian development in today’s context.
— Mark Sealy
Adapted from an audio tour given by Mark Sealy at Human Rights Human Wrongs, a presentation at Ryerson Image Centre, Canada, in 2013.