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Q&A: “Video Puts the Human into Human Rights”

Silvia Romanelli interviews CHRIS MICHAEL of WITNESS

UNITED NATIONS, May 20 2013 (IPS) - “We live in a world where billions of citizen witnesses have cameras in their pockets. The opportunities are endless to document human rights violations,” Chris Michael, head of training and partnerships at WITNESS, tells IPS.

Courtesy of Chris Michael

Courtesy of Chris Michael

Co-founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel, Human Rights First and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, WITNESS is a Brooklyn-based organisation that empowers citizens to use video advocacy to denounce human rights violations, through trainings and video campaigns in partnership with local NGOs.

In June 2012, WITNESS created, together with other organisations using video for activism, the ‘video4change’ international network.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What is the most important thing for an advocacy video to be effective?

A: Integrating video effectively into a human rights campaign is a complex process, so it can’t be boiled down to any single variable. However, when personal stories are a driving force behind a campaign for change, and when there is a clearly defined, accessible audience with the power to help change the situation – be they policy makers, community activists, or the media – you have a powerful recipe for change.

Q: ‘Video4change’ is working to assess advocacy videos’ impact. How can this impact be measured?

A: WITNESS has worked with over 350 partners and trained over 4,500 human rights defenders in 87 countries to develop, test and hone our model of video for change. However, our model is just one of many.

Some are audience, change-driven models like WITNESS, where the goal is policy change. Others, like our allies at Video Volunteers in India, are really focused on building capacity of citizen journalists to report on pressing issues to help effect change in their community.

"The power of personal stories that engage, move and inspire the audiences they are intended for is what can catapult the desired action." -- Chris Michael

This research effort, led by Dr. Tanya Notley of the University of Western Sydney and Julie Fischer from the Center for Civic Media/Open Documentary Lab at MIT, is exploring eight different models of video for change that explore the methodologies of 15 leading groups and organisations.

In addition to learning how each methodology evaluates its success – be it policy change, or shift in behaviour or attitudes, for example – the research will contribute to the development of a shared set of impact indicators, methodologies and metrics tools that will enhance the quality of future video for change initiatives.

Q: In June 2012, WITNESS co-hosted in Indonesia a global gathering of organisations that use video for activism. Do you think that human rights advocacy videos are more effective in some regions/cultures than in others?

A: Context, including but not limited to region and culture, is paramount to all aspects of video advocacy. It is critical when evaluating not only if video is the right tool, but how and when it should best be used and to what ends.

Though each situation is unique – the challenges a Syrian advocate faces in documenting war crimes is drastically different than a youth organiser using video to increase funding for her library, for example – there are universal considerations around security of all involved, as well as determining the goal, audience and primary message you want to convey to your intended audience.

Q: Part of video’s communication strength lies in its power to stimulate strong emotive reactions. Do you think this can sometimes cause an oversimplified understanding of a situation, driven only by the emotion of the moment?

A: Any advocacy effort – be it in writing, in video, or in person – runs the risk of over-simplifying a complex situation. So advocacy in all forms must be very careful to convey issues responsibly.

Because it communicates on so many levels, video has a unique and powerful way of conveying a nuanced and complete picture. Video has the power to bring its audience into a specific time and place, to connect with people affected by a situation, hear their stories and learn directly from them what changes they want to see. The power of personal stories that engage, move and inspire the audiences they are intended for is what can catapult the desired action.

At WITNESS, we consider it vitally important that those affected by human rights violations are telling their own stories. We can provide training on creating videos and on building advocacy campaigns, but we cannot and should not tell the story ourselves.

Q: In your opinion, in today’s overload of data and images, do advocacy videos risk losing their power of driving attention to human rights issues?

A: In 2012, there were over 350,000 hours of Syria-related human rights footage uploaded to YouTube alone. Is that a problem? Certainly not. But it does require that we work differently.

Oversaturation is a consideration in WITNESS’ training materials – we firmly believe that careful strategy is necessary to maximise impact. We teach activists to focus on a particular audience that can take a specific action, and we train them to create videos that will affect that audience, and to get their videos in front of those eyes.

Curation and contextualisation are two other remedies. The challenge is to make sure that viewers can make sense of what happened in the footage they see. This is one reason WITNESS, in partnership with Storyful, launched the Human Rights Channel on YouTube – to verify, curate, and amplify the most powerful human rights content.

Q: What are the challenges and opportunities ahead for WITNESS’s work? 

A: The greatest challenge for our work is scaling it up to properly educate the millions of people who now have cameras in their pockets and are willing to use them to document human rights abuses.

Video advocacy has evolved in leaps and bounds with the growth of easy-to-use and affordable cameras and the explosion of video-enabled cell phones, not to mention the growth of social media and video sharing platforms. This is creating enormous opportunities for video advocates to create, curate and share stories that we may never have seen or heard previously.

Thankfully, it is harder and harder to hide human rights violations.

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