From 6 February until 6 April, London’s Photographers’ Gallery is playing host to ‘Human Rights Human Wrongs’, an exhibition curated by Mark Sealy. In introducing the exhibition, Sealy says its aim is to redress photography’s Eurocentric and imperialist biases on human rights issues, and to reject the idea that an era or event can be summed up through one iconic image.
The exhibition certainly succeeds in avoiding a European- or Western-dominated story of human rights. Key Western figures in the history of human rights do feature: John F. Kennedy, Lester Pearson, and others. But great efforts have been made to source photographs from parts of the world not always discussed in histories of human rights: Kenya, El Salvador, Palestine, Brazil, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The images, taken together, are a corrective to Samuel Moyn’s narrative in The Last Utopia that credits the rise of human rights to US efforts in the late 1970s.
As well, the photographs in this exhibition convey the dynamism and messiness of many human rights struggles. One photograph from 1960s America shows a muscular African-American with his back to the camera, his shirt soaked by a nearby water cannon – and a misty spray surrounding him. The image captures the confusion and resignation of a moment of protest, and is a reminder of the capacity for photographs to add texture to our understanding of historical events. The symbolic power of photographs is confirmed by another civil rights-era picture from Montgomery, Alabama in 1958 – a slightly tilted close-up of a baseball bat being swung towards a group of people, which suggests that in this scene in 1958 something is ethically tilted, not quite right.
Facial features and expressions are also given prominence in this exhibition. We see the menacing smile of a Japanese guard as he walks by a suffering Chinese prisoner, in 1904–1905, and the fierce persistence etched on the face of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he speaks on a phone while in hospital in 1958. The images accentuate, too, the significance of solidarity for human rights. A photograph from Algeria reveals a truck-load of people, travelling together and moving towards the same destination. Another image from Algeria from 1962 shows the fellow-feeling amongst two (apparently colonial) soldiers, walking away from the camera with hands on each other’s backs. Pictures can focus our attention on how people relate to each other, on interlocking emotions and expressions – a facet of life not as succinctly or subtly captured by text.
We should not, however, understand these photographs as unproblematic representations of reality. The photographs themselves indicate how images can be manipulated in human rights struggles. The point is most clearly highlighted in a picture of female Ku Klux Klan members, evidently used as KKK propaganda, and in the snapshot of a Portuguese soldier and an Angolan woman used (as we are told in the caption) to show that colonial soldiers had interracial relationships.
Whether Sealy succeeds in his second aim – of rejecting definitive representations of eras and events – is harder to say. The line dividing imagery that satirises dominant ways of seeing the past, and imagery that re-enacts those dominant representations, is blurry. Thus, images in the exhibition of influential individuals in human rights history are in danger of perpetuating, rather than challenging, ‘Great Man’ perspectives.
The exhibition also has a puzzling relationship with the law. The text displayed as you enter the exhibition mentions Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights –the right to recognition as a person before the law – but the exhibition does not focus on recognition “before the law”. The first fifteen articles of the Universal Declaration are also presented grandly on a wall on level 2, with the sixteenth-thirtieth articles listed on a wall on level 4 where the exhibition continues – but if there is a relationship between the articles and the photographs, it is not spelled out.
These minor shortcomings aside, this is a thought-provoking exhibition. It prompts lawyers to think about how the richness of human rights struggles can be communicated in courtroom settings. In the US Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Brown v Plata, Justice Kennedy appended photographs of overcrowded Californian prisons to his judgment, one of the first high-profile judgments in which photographs were used. It may be that photographs can play a greater role in submissions and in judgments, especially in human rights cases. This Photographers’ Gallery exhibition shows, overall, that while photographs can be manipulated, they can underscore the subtle dynamics of interactions between human beings, the messiness and dynamism of human rights struggles, and some sentiments – a sense of solidarity, for example – not easily captured by any other medium.