Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Human Rights Human Wrongs

Birmingham, Alabama on 3 May 1963. Photograph: Charles Moore

Human Rights Human Wrongs currently showing at the Photographers’ Gallery is a hard-hitting, and ultimately very sobering look at the story of human rights in the second half of the twentieth century – a catalogue of wars, demonstrations, uprisings, famine, political struggle and violence. Taking the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a starting point, and in particular Article 6 which states ‘Everybody has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law’, it is curated by Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP, using photographs from the archive of the Black Star agency, an organisation founded in 1935 by three German Jews who fled Nazi persecution. Key events from the American Civil Rights movement are depicted alongside African independence struggles, the Vietnam War, uprisings in Central America, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, student riots worldwide, the Biafran famine, together with a number of portraits of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Most of the photographers are not household names, but the images they portray are familiar from newsreels and newspapers of the time, and there are a few famous photographs - a gun-toting Patty Hearst, a Biafran child with outstretched hand, civil rights campaigners such as Martin Luther King. The photographs themselves are all black and white, working press prints complete with marks and creases.  The curator has opted not to display the work in strict chronological or geographical order but instead juxtaposes images from struggles in different parts of the world - a picture of the Chicago riots sits next to one of a conflict in Mozambique, student demonstrations in Paris are shown alongside similar protests in Mexico and Berkeley, California. The effect serves to emphasise the common experiences and shared grievances worldwide.  Dotted throughout the exhibition are a number of small series – police dogs being set on the Birmingham marchers, a Vietnam War chaplain ministering to American soldiers – showing the viewer that the decisive moment and the iconic image are only a small part of the whole.

One of the stated aims of the curator is to make people consider the role of the photojournalist and Western media organisations and the fact that most of these events are mediated through the eyes of an outsider within ‘a very particular tradition of Eurocentric concerns’. Does the representation of repeated images of conflict and suffering dehumanise or objectify the people depicted? Does the audience become desensitised over time? What is the cultural meaning assigned to these photographs? These are important questions which the exhibition raises and upon which the viewer is encouraged to reflect.  The densely packed exhibition on two floors is full of shocking, graphic images of suffering and grief, racism and oppression, the casualties and aftermath of war, social unrest and instances of brutality and at times is rather an overwhelming experience.  But the fact that events such as those depicted in the photographs are still happening all over the world is a compelling reason to visit this important exhibition.

Czechoslovakia Invasion, Prague, on 21 August 1968. Photograph: Hilmar Pabel

  Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama, December 1965. Photograph: Bob Fitch

 The Republic of Biafra, c 1968. Photograph: Carlo Bavagnoli

Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, during procession with newly appointed President Kasavubu, Leopoldville, Republic of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), 30 June 1960. Photograph: Robert Lebeck

All Photographs from The Black Star Collection/Ryerson Image 

Human Rights Human Wrongs at The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW Until 6 April 2015 Free

This review is published in the Spring edition of fLIP, the magazine of London Independent Photography