By Jenni Wolfson
Exactly 20 years have passed since the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD was captured by George Holliday, a bystander, on a hand-held video camera. Millions around the world saw the footage. This incident was the impetus for the creation of WITNESS. People began to realize that a citizen with a camera in his/her hands could be a powerful actor.
WITNESS’s co-founder Peter Gabriel asked: What if every human rights defender had a camera in their hands? What would they film and what could they change? Guided by that dream, WITNESS gave activists cameras and training to help their local voices reach the global arena. At the time, a video camera was a rare luxury item.
Now, two decades later, ever-increasing numbers of people throughout the world have access to video. The most recent statistics show that there is now one cell phone for every one and a half people on earth. As a consequence, a growing number of individuals have the capacity to film using a cell phone or other mobile device – which they carry with them at all times. Many others could be empowered with inexpensive video cameras that record high-quality images. It has never been easier to capture video in our everyday lives.
At the time of WITNESS’s founding, we assumed the biggest value add would be the technical provision of equipment. Over time, however, it became clear that the simple provision of a camera was inadequate for most human rights contexts. Most human rights footage does not receive the attention that Rodney King did. Perhaps more important a realization for us was that a structural human rights issue, such as the right to water, cannot be easily captured in footage of 56 blows of a baton, six kicks and two taser blasts.
Indeed WITNESS has emphasized the importance of effective storytelling when video is used in a human rights context. Most of the videos we have gone on to co-produce with over 80 human rights organizations around the world are largely testimony based. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mafille, a teenage girl, tells us how she was raped and then repeatedly sexually abused by militia members as part of her “military service.” Her eyes downcast she says, “I am still in shock. I still cry when I think about it.” Mafille’s story is effective in conveying the message that children don’t want any part of combat, without showing any graphic content.
In the 20 years since Rodney King footage was circulated, the flow of imagery being produced on a daily basis, by major news networks and amateurs alike is constant and overwhelmingA world with cameras everywhere makes it possible for nearly anyone to become a human rights activist – giving us billions of potential witnesses to the Rodney King incidents of our time.
So what does the legacy of the Rodney King incident really mean for WITNESS, for human rights defenders, for the individual stories captured and shared via video every day? The Los Angeles Times today reported that the LAPD, has “learned to embrace video scrutiny” and that the department’s overall reputation has improved as a result. And technology has made it possible for people to distribute all this new video content in rapid succession. Online video platforms like YouTube and social media networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become part of the basic fabric of communication – not just in our personal and professional lives, but as fundamental tools for civic discourse and social and political activism.
Contributors to content now include citizen “reporters” who shoot and upload to these sites, “editors” who grab salient moments and re-package them, “curators” who embed, re-edit, tweet, blog and email content, and of course, a multitude of viewers who continuously watch, rank, share and comment on what they see. But the challenges and risks are also immense. This proliferation raises new concerns around the safety, security, privacy and consent of those who are filming and being filmed. As we look towards our next 20 years, one of our key areas of focus is in preparing human rights defenders and citizen journalists (planned or accidental), to film safely and effectively, so that their videos can be used to create lasting change.