Human Rights Human Wrongs is the first UK showing of an exhibition exploring the role of photography in war, conflict and violence – with a particular focus on how photos can raise awareness of international conflict and how they help us understand civil and human rights. Now showing at the Photographers’ Gallery, it is a powerful and thought-provoking exhibition that does not seek to dictate answers. Whilst an apparent lack of sequence or chronology may seem on the surface to be a drawback, this is the exhibition’s strongest point. Instead of being left with an easy answer, the viewer is left with a real sense of the multiplicity of conflict, and is confronted with the idea that violence affects different people and different communities in very different ways. It broadens war photography’s scope beyond the well-known and well-documented atrocities, and allows us to access the complexity of war and peace through the individual humans who are in the photographs.
The exhibition takes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as its historical and curatorial starting point. The first 10 Articles of the Declaration, displayed in bold black writing against a sheer white wall, are the first thing your eyes are drawn to. They remind us of the principles of common humanity – that we are born equal and free in rights, that we have the right to life, liberty and security and that we shall not be subjected to cruelty, discrimination or arbitrary punishment. This powerful opening remains firmly in the mind throughout the exhibition.
The photos on show take us on a global exploration, from DR Congo or South Africa to Vietnam, Europe and South America. Some exhibits are a series of action shots, documenting heroic actions in the face of adversity. As our eyes flick along these images, we are immersed in the unfolding events almost as if we were one of the onlookers in the frame. Other exhibits are of a single, powerful image that stops us in our tracks, the eyes of the people conveying a multiplicity of human emotions that are impossible to ignore. Even the landscape shots have a poignant message: a photograph of the terrain of Gaza without walls or soldiers, or the image of the Berlin Wall next to an image of a fence in South Africa – all tell us a story of how walls and barriers cause damaging divisions.
It is the portrait photographs of Nobel Peace Prize winners and other inspiring leaders of change, punctuating the exhibition, that remind us that there are always people working for change and for peace. They are symbolic of the many moments of hope and heroism that are present in every conflict and of the inspiring action that is taken by people every day to make their world and their communities safer, more tolerant and more peaceful places. This is the same message we see in the work of our peacebuilding partners and of all the brave and inspiring people who work for peace in their communities.
The exhibition is a powerful exploration of tensions and conflict through images of the very people who have experienced it. But the exhibition leaves out one crucial perspective: that photography is also a powerful tool for building understanding, developing cooperation and promoting peace. For example, an innovative photography project run by our peacebuilding partners in Sri Lanka exemplifies this power of photography for peace. The exhibitions they hold across their country tell a different story of how images can be used to challenge hatred, violence and intolerance. This is the next chapter of the story, which Peace Direct is writing – with our local peacebuilding partners around the world.
Human Rights Human Wrongs is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 6 April, free admission.