From the moment WITNESS was founded our vision has been to tap into the power of the video camera in the hands of everyone who wants to expose injustice and create positive change, from human rights defenders to committed citizens.
Over the last few days in Egypt, and before that in Tunisia, video has played a key role in mobilizing people within the country, informing the world about the situation and feeding mainstream media’s need for images and on-the-ground stories. And it is every kind of video and video-maker, as this image from Flickr shows – the professional video gathered by Al-Jazeera, and the mobile phone and consumer camera footage of hundreds, if not thousands of ordinary citizens and human rights activists shared, circulated, and compiled on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Energized by this demonstration of the capacity of video to support human rights struggles (only the beginning of a growing potential, we hope), we look at the events in Egypt from two broader video-for-change perspectives.
Firstly, to think how people in situations like this can as effectively as possible gather and share video, thinking about how it can be used as documentation and advocacy, how it can be gathered safely and how it can capture the full sense of an event (context, the people involved, actions) in a way that others can understand and that also potentially could serve as evidence in future trials. We’ve been sharing on YouTube with captions our training videos in Arabic (as well as our training manual in Arabic) and are now turning these videos into a format that will be easily bluetoothable (so they can be shared mobile-to-mobile, person-to-person in a crisis situation). Over the next few months we will continue to crowd-source translation of these tools into an increased number of languages (for example, we recently distributed a Burmese translation of our training videos/manual (PDF)).
Secondly, the spread of video across all forms of activism further emphasizes the importance of what we have been hearing and seeing as we talk within our ‘Cameras Everywhere’ Leadership Initiative to advocates, activists, technology experts and policy-makers about ways to make ubiquitous video for human rights, safer, more easily authenticated and understood, and more likely to create action:
– Although we hope this will not be the case in Egypt, from experiences in Iran and Burma it has become clear that the ease of identifying protestors is facilitated by online and mobile video that circulates and can be analyzed by governments to target people. Although it may never be possible (or in many cases desirable) to anonymize much footage, we are working to develop ways to easily conceal identity on-the-fly for situations when this is possible and very necessary (for example, interview and testimonies when individuals at risk speak-out, or to conceal the background behind people), to ensure that informed consent can be easily integrated into mobile filming processes, and thinking about how these processes could be better supported at the moment of upload to public platforms.
– Based on our experiences with many human rights struggles that are not on the scale of the current events in Egypt, where there is not a critical mass of thousands of people, massive citizen movements and geopolitical importance, we are working on approaches that assure that human rights video rises to public prominence and can contribute to advocacy efforts to end human rights violations in places that remain out of the public consciousness (like our work on forced evictions in rural areas in Mexico or Cambodia, or violence against women in CAR or Uganda). We are looking at possibilities for targeted curation, and exploring new forms of storytelling and authentication that enable this video to be surfaced, understood and seen amid an increasing amount of video, as well as developing a comprehensive new toolkit that helps grassroots activists plan how to use video effectively and safely.
We ourselves are not actively curating videos from Egypt since there is such a wealth of curation occurring already. We recommend such sources as Global Voices Online, whose Friday post on ‘Videos are Worth a Million Words‘ captured many of the emotions of staff here and which has a great record of contextualizing video in local contexts, Al-Jazeera streaming live online, and the constant flow of information that can be found on Twitter (find here a suggestion of feeds to follow, and here some criteria, first developed during the events in Iran last year, for how to evaluate the credibility of Twitter sources).