From Rodney King to Burma: An Interview with Witness’s Sam Gregory (Part One)

I came back from the USC DIY Media Event with a whole range of new contacts. One hallmark of this outstanding conference was that it brought together people from very different social networks — people who are working in parallel across different communities to explore the potentials of participatory culture. I’ve already featured through this blog an extensive interview with independent filmmaker and critic Alex Juhasz exploring her efforts to teach through and about Youtube. Today, I want to showcase another participant in the USC event — human rights activist Sam Gregory. Gregory’s comments about the strengths and limitations of Youtube as a site for media activism were eye-opening to me and I hope you will find them equally illuminating. In the interview which follows, Gregory describes the evolution in the thinking of his organization, Witness, from the aftermath of the Rodney King video, to the recent use of Youtube as a platform for the Burmese democracy movement. Drawing a phrase from Jamais Cascio, Gregory speaks here about the “participatory panopticon,” the potentials of a world where citizens can use light weight portable cameras, including those built into their cellphones, and video distribution platforms to alert the world about human rights violations in their country. The past decade plus of DIY activism has taught veterans to be skeptical about some of the more utopian claims of the previous generation, even as they are learning to be more effective at exploiting every available opportunity to capture and distribute harsh realities that much of the world doesn’t want to watch.

Sam Gregory, Program Director, is a video producer, trainer, and human rights advocate. In 2005 he was the lead editor on Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism (Pluto Press), and in 2007 he lead the development of the curriculum for WITNESS’ first ever Video Advocacy Institute. Videos he has produced have been screened at the US Congress,the UK Houses of Parliament, the United Nations and at film festivals worldwide. In 2004 he was a jury member for the IDFA Amnesty International/Doen Award. He was a Kennedy Memorial Scholar at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where his Master’s in Public Policy focused on

international development and media. He has worked as a television researcher/producer in both the UK and USA, and for development organizations in Nepal and Vietnam, and holds a BA from Oxford University in History and Spanish. He is on the Board of the US Campaign for Burma, and the Tactical Technology Collective. He speaks fluent Spanish, conversational French and basic Nepali.

Can you tell us something about the thinking which led to the creation of WITNESS? How has your organization’s vision shifted over time in response to shifts in the nature of participatory culture?

In the late 1980’s, our founder, Peter Gabriel had been participating in the Amnesty Human Rights Now Tour, travelling the world and meeting human rights activists at each concert stop. And in many cases, it struck him that their stories were not being heard, and that new tools like the consumer video-camera could perhaps change that. Fast-forward a couple of years, and the Rodney King incident brought the possibilities home. From the window of his apartment George Holliday filmed a sequence of graphic human rights violations that generated massive media attention. That provided the impetus for the creation of WITNESS – founded in the assumption that if you could place cameras in the hands of the people who chose to be “in the wrong place at the right time”, i.e. human rights advocates and activists around the world living and working with communities affected by violations, then you would enable a new way to mobilize action for real change.

For the first decade of our work we wrestled with how best to operationalize this idea. In the early 1990’s we were focused on the technology. We distributed hundreds of cameras to human rights groups around the world, assuming that they would be able to gather footage that could get on television or be used as evidence -two polar extremes of usage, one very specialized and targeted at a judicial fact-finder or jury, the other playing to a vast, undifferentiated court of public opinion.

In those first years we learnt that without technical training, you could shoot raw video but you could not create the finished narratives that matter in most advocacy contexts outside of providing raw footage to the news media. We evolved to a strategy of working intensely with a select group of 10-12 ‘core partners’ – human rights groups on the ground who approach us to collaborate in helping them integrate video into their campaigns; as well as doing extensive trainings, producing online training materials like our Guide to Video Advocacy and writing books like ‘Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism‘ to promote effective ideas in our community. And most recently we embarked on a new project, the Hub, which is the most DIY part of our work – a participatory media site where individuals and organizations can safely upload footage of abuses and finished advocacy videos, share it, learn how to deploy it in their campaigns, and present clear context and links to more information, groups working to address the issues, and actions that viewers and supporters can take.

Over the past fifteen years, a number of factors came to characterize the WITNESS approach. We focus on the empowered voices of those who are closer or closest to rights violations – including victims, survivors, community members and engaged advocates on behalf of affected communities. And until recently we’ve generally sought to use “smart narrowcasting” rather than “broadcasting” to reach key audiences. So for example, the video ‘Bound by Promises‘ was framed for and used in screenings to government officials and legislators in Brazil to push them to prioritize concrete programs to reduce rural slave labor. Our work has also always blurred the line between amateurs and professionals in terms of using video -we are training human rights workers, and now concerned citizens, to use video as an everyday facet of their work, rather than to turn them into documentary film-makers.

We’ve seen a progressive expansion of the participatory possibilities of video: first, increased access to cameras, the increased access to editing capacity, then the dramatic growth of online video-sharing for distribution. And in the past three years we see the possibilities for increased collaboration in editing and production, for online distribution, and for more immediate and widespread filming – all facilitated by a digitally-literate youth, by mobile technology with still image and video capability and by new online tools.

What role does do it yourself video play in heightening public awareness of human rights issues around the world?

I would identify three spheres of usage of DIY video in raising awareness of human rights issues around the world: advocacy videos, witness documentation and perpetrator video. All three are facilitated by ubiquitous technology for documentation (via video-cameras, digital still cameras with video functionality, and cell-phone cameras), by increasing digital literacy, and by increased opportunities for sharing, remixing and re-circulating.

To date most of our focus has been on advocacy video and on working to find the spaces where bringing the visual story into the virtual or real room can make a difference. Here we’re trying to change the vernacular language of human rights advocacy, to make a space for the voices from outside, and to push a new way of communicating around rights abuses.

Frequently we’ve promoted an approach that’s all about smart narrow-casting, speaking to a particular audience at a particular time, and seeking a distinct change in policy, behavior or practice. Videos are always part of a continuum of action — and a strategy — rather than stand-alone. Here we’re working in the middle ground between the extremes of undifferentiated mass media attention and direct evidence in the courts. This could include showing video to an international or regional tribunal (we’ve been involved in a precedent-setting case to present video before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, on land rights in Kenya), it could involve bringing to the voices of victims and the visual evidence of abuses in Burma into a Congressional briefing or a meeting of Security Council representatives, and it can involve engaging communities themselves to take action on a rights issues, for example by showing a video on voluntary recruitment of child soldiers in villages across eastern Congo. Videos always provide a ‘space for action’ by the audience, encouraging them to participate in solving the problem.

The scope of this use of video is increasing by the day, alongside more traditional human rights documentaries. We can see it on the Hub, where many of the videos uploaded are produced by NGOs, both at a national and an international level – for example, Video Volunteers’ ‘Stop the Privatization of Water, films by Amazon Watch, and ‘Drying up Palestine.

The two modes that we’re seeing now in increasing prevalence are witness documentation and perpetrator footage. Both are circulating increasingly in online video sharing contexts, and in the blogosphere. It’s partly in response to the radically increased possibilities for participation in creating human rights video online that we’ve created our Hub project. In some senses with both witness documentation and perpetrator footage you’re revisiting a Rodney King moment – only this time, there is a potential global audience of both activists and publics who can have access to the footage, and there are distribution options to get it to them, and knowledge about how to frame action around them. It’s an exciting moment as people experiment with what can work with this radically expanded access to production and distribution.

Our founder, Peter Gabriel talks sometimes about “little brothers” and “little sisters” watching Big Brother, and this world of the ‘participatory panopticon‘ as Jamais Cascio calls it – is one filled with emancipatory potential as long as we can make sure that the footage that circulates helps facilitate voice and change, rather than enable repression.

You’ve written that the project was initially shaped by assumptions about the “transparency” of the video medium. Explain. What happens to human rights video as we become more self conscious about the properties of the medium and the ways that it can be manipulated?

Our starting point was what the scholar Meg McLagan has succinctly termed a moment of “1990s technophilia and (with a) model of change based on the transparency of media”. So it was very technology-focused and grounded in a perhaps naïve belief in the indexicality of the image – a firm conviction that ‘seeing is believing’ and that seeing would create action, in the same way that the Rodney King had seemingly inspired mass outrage and in the same way that at first.

Our initial assumptions about audience and how footage would be perceived and used, were not correct. In those days before widespread online video sharing, the modes to access broad publics were ineffective. We focused on video in judicial processes, and sharing video with the mass media – both of which are premised on the ‘evidentiary’ value of human rights footage. Yet both news media and evidentiary settings were challenging to access. The Rodney King experience was anomalous. Although George Holliday’s footage permeated the mass media and was used in the subsequent state and federal trials, the overwhelming majority of human rights video cannot and does not reach those venues. And if it does, as many marginalized groups have experienced in their media advocacy, it is often presented in ways that are contradictory to the desires and intentions of the communities affected by the rights violations. The reasons for this – of course — vary. But the result is the same. In some countries it may be that media is government, or corporate-controlled, or won’t screen graphic imagery — or is only interested in screening graphic imagery. And in many cases news media focuses on episodic framing that emphasize individual actions, victims and perpetrators, and is less interested in structural violence, systemic challenges or the ongoing problems that characterize many of the most pernicious abuses, and especially violations of economic, social and cultural rights. So, for example, a group I work with in Papua, Indonesia documents the systematic, ongoing and pervasive exclusion of indigenous Papuans in an economy dominated by migrants from other parts of Indonesia, and in a justice system that moves rarely against the powerful. In seeking widespread media attention they will face the triple barrier of government censorship, popular neglect and an issue that is not easily reduced to blow of a security force baton.

Similarly, trying to use the video as evidence frequently does not work. The rules of evidence are hard to navigate. And even if the evidence is admitted, we need only see how the Rodney King footage was flipped around and manipulated both to prove that the Los Angeles Police Department officers were following the training they had been provided to deal with a resisting suspect, and to demonstrate the grotesque abuse of power evident in the fifty-six strikes delivered on Rodney King.

So what this boiled down for us – alongside some re-thinking on audience — was the need for framing and narrative to create effective advocacy videos. This framing can come both within the video and in the way it is presented within a campaign. Rather than relying on the ‘visual evidence’ in and of itself, you have to place this in a rhetorical framework that explains it, and offers ways to act. Seeing may be believing, but it may also lead to pessimism, and compassion fatigue in the absence of opportunities to act. We’re not promoting a journalistic model of studious neutrality – our experience is that marginalized voices are excluded enough, without the need to balance their voices in a one-for-one ratio to the voices of authority or perpetrators. So most advocacy videos do have a point-of-view and an outcome in mind, but the best do this with clear respect for the facts of the situation.

You’ve argued that some of the most effective videos for dramatizing human rights issues have come not from activists but from the oppressive regimes themselves. Can you cite a few examples? Why were these videos produced in the first place? What new significance has been ascribed to them as they move into new contexts?

The futurist Jamais Casco has suggested that the ‘Rodney King’ moment of the digital camera era may hav e been the Abu Ghraib photos, and I would argue that the analogue for cell-phones was the footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution. Yet both sets of images were filmed by perpetrators or by insiders, not by concerned citizens, advocates or observers. More broadly we can see a proliferation of images, particularly of torture by police, security force and military personnel.

One of the most viewed videos on the Hub is a redacted version of footage shot by Egyptian police in which they humiliate a Cairo bus driver by slapping him repeatedly. These and other more graphic videos that include the sodomization of another driver were filmed by the police themselves. They were then used to humiliate the victims – including by sending the images to other drivers– and to intimidate other people by demonstrating what would happen if they didn’t follow police orders. They share many similarities with the psychology of happy-slapping: adding for the victim the humiliation of the act of filming, as well as the humiliation of the probability of preservation, and allowing the perpetrator to relish the memory, and share it with their friends. Similar cases have galvanized debate in Greece, Malaysia (the notorious Squat-gate incident) and a number of other countries. And of course, footage is also shot increasingly by government to document and apprehend protestors and dissidents – here in the US, there has been the contentious suit around the NYPD and activists filming at the Republican National Convention in 2004, while most recently we can see official cameramen in the footage of protests from Burma and Tibet (for example, at 00:32 in this clip).

What happens is that these videos then circulate beyond the circles for which they were intended – and are re-ascribed new meanings. For example in Egypt, bloggers and journalists lead by Wael Abbas and Hossam el-Hamalawy circulated leaked cell-phone videos to challenge repeated denials of accountability for police brutality and torture by the government. By circulating the videos, and connecting online to both a local and international audience, they were able to generate media attention, and force an official response. Although the government initially tried to discredit the activists, it was very hard to deny the truth of the images, and for the first time, there was an investigation into the conduct of police officers in two of the leaked videos leading to a prosecution.

One issue that does arise is around the re-victimization of individuals featured in the footage. They are often doubly humiliated in the first instance – by what happens to them in custody, and by the act of filming, and then they are further exposed as the footage achieves widespread circulation. We’ve tried to address this in our own practice – for example, by respecting the victim’s wishes in the Squatgate case and not re-posting the video on the Hub pilot project, but I think the most important thing we can do institutionally is to support the growth of norms in the online video community that are respectful of individuals’ dignity and rights (the Transmission community has been leading on this concept)

Human rights videos, you’ve claimed, need to be thought of as “transnational stories.” What are the implications of that statement? What factors insure that the video will achieve its desired effect as it encounters alternative audiences?

Much human rights activism is still about speaking to distant audiences, often to generate a ‘boomerang’ effect in your home country. In these cases you are telling transnational stories that must speak to an audience inevitably less grounded than you in the everyday realities of the oppression. So, the footage in the video produced by our partners working undercover in Burma ‘Shoot on Sight’ must speak to activists not only within Asia, but to government officials, decision-makers and solidarity supporters in North America and Europe. Most human rights situations are embedded in contexts of structural complexity, long histories of repression and reaction and many actors with different agenda. As activists and concerned citizens create human rights advocacy videos they face a dilemma. They want to resist a globalization of local images stripped of their meaning, by keeping intact local voices in local contexts, and in a way that is faithful both to the direct visible violence of a situation as well as the underlying structural causes. But at the same time as you move testimony and images between different advocacy and media arenas it often ‘helps’ to strip out some of the markers of specificity. From experience, I know that with many audiences too much analysis of the particularity and nuance of a testimonial story may undermine it as an advocacy call.

You are balancing the ethical demands to be true to the people who speak out, a recognition of the real complexities and the desire to make viewers genuine ethical witnesses, against the need to convince, shame or horrify a distant audience with a medium whose power often lies in directness both visually and in narrative. You also have to make tough choices in balancing the visceral power and problems of raw visual evidence (for example, of graphic violence) with the use of testimony.

Now as human rights video circulate increasingly unmoored from its original location – i.e. embedded, shared, remixed – it becomes key to place context and ways to act within the video and imagery itself rather than outside it since no sooner has your video been forwarded from YouTube, the Hub or elsewhere it becomes de-coupled from options to act unless those are built into the video itself, and unless your message comes through loud and clear.