I have had the pleasure of interning in the WITNESS Media Archive for the past semester. I chose this internship because I hoped to put my Masters in Human Rights Studies and my Masters in Library Science to work in the video archive. Much to my delight, I was able to process a donation of 100+ tapes from Rainlake Productions. Rainlake produced the Reebok Human Rights Award videos, which followed the recipients of the Reebok Human Rights Award while they worked in their region on their individual human rights campaigns.
Processing the Rainlake collection has been a great experience. Aside from learning some very useful technical skills thanks to Yvonne, Grace and Martin, I have been reminded of the depth and breadth of what human rights activism and archives can be. The range of activists featured in the Rainlake materials exposes the devastatingly broad reach of human rights violations. In Chechnya, one featured activist spent her days filming the excavation of mass graves and comforting those who had lost their families to political violence. Another recipient spent her days joyfully mobilizing and inspiring members of the Wapixana community (indigenous to Brazil) to resist land grabbing by the government. Cataloging, safeguarding, and providing access to these videos helps the work done by these activists to last well into the future. Adding this footage to the media archive cements its place in history. The good news for people interested in the field of human rights archives is that human rights archives are becoming increasingly important. The authors of history used to be those in power. Today with YouTube, flip cameras and organizations like WITNESS training activists overseas, human rights archives will be ever-expanding, hopefully with the goal of ending human rights abuse around the world.
Some highlights of the collection are footage of:
→ the fight against lead poisoning in Bushwick, NY,
→ the fight against racism in the Texas justice system,
→ efforts to help women with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria,
→ efforts to end the Taliban’s reign of violence against women and dissidents in Afghanistan,
→ the struggle for indigenous rights to land in Brazil in the face of farming, logging and mining interests backed by violence,
→ efforts to counter and expose human rights abuses perpetrated by the repressive Russian and Chechen governments/forces,
→ fight against the trafficking of women and the use of rape against Shan women by the Burmese military,
→ efforts to get medical care to refugees fleeing violence in the Philippines.
This collection documents many types of abuse perpetrated by all ranks. The effect of looking at a collection like this produces feelings of defeat and inspiration simultaneously. Defeat because much of the damage has been done, as in Chechnya. Archiving these tapes becomes an exercise in putting tapes away as a silent but necessarily enduring witness to a tragedy. However, the existence of a digital copy and preview files of each of these tapes allows them to remain safe in the archive, but also easily searched and accessed, ready at any moment to tell their story. These tapes might one day serve to confirm that such a terrible tragedy did in fact occur. On a more positive note, many of the awardees featured have made great strides in improving peoples lives from the ground up, in brave, sustainable and admirable ways.
During my internship at WITNESS, I noticed that the archive is well integrated into the rest of the organization. I could imagine another situation where the archivists did not attend the staff meetings, were not consulted about budget, hiring, program and structural changes or any other “non-archival” issue. I have seen this kind of disengagement happen at other organizations where the archives exist in a separate realm. Perhaps it is the immediacy of video that keeps the archivists relevant and involved with the rest of the organization, or perhaps it is the people themselves. Either way, the WITNESS Media Archive serves as a great example of how much better an archive functions when it is appreciated, understood, and treated as integral to the smooth functioning of a non-profit. I look forward to seeing how WITNESS will continue to blaze the trail of human rights advocacy through the use of video, and I’m sure that the archivists will not be far behind.