< Can I Get a Witness?


Friday, October 14, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Activists battling human rights violations around the world know that seeing is believing. No amount of argument can beat the power of pictures or, better yet, video. Witness is an international human rights organization that provides video equipment and training to advocacy campaigns across the globe and then works with them to finish effective documentaries illustrating abuse. A forthcoming book called Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism will serve as a how-to for what the group calls "tactical media." Gillian Caldwell is the Executive Director of Witness. She says the organization was founded by musician Peter Gabriel, who was inspired in an odd way when videotape captured Rodney King being beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department.

GILLIAN CALDWELL: What happened in the Rodney King incident is that an unarmed individual was on the ground and a bystander happened to notice that the Los Angeles Police Department were beating him with batons while he was defenseless. That eventually led to a court case in which, interestingly enough, the video footage was slowed down enough for the defense to make what ultimately was a persuasive and very controversial argument that the LAPD were, in fact, operating in accordance with their protocol. So while the videotape galvanizes this conversation about police brutality, the end result of that case, which led to the L.A. riots, was that the police were exonerated. So the end result wasn't what you might have anticipated, but it did make a powerful point, that video is a persuasive tool and a very evocative medium.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you weigh the suitability of a particular issue or a particular project for the video treatment?

GILLIAN CALDWELL: Well, what we like to think of in that context is visual vocabulary. When you think of an issue or a problem that people might face on a local level, what's the visual vocabulary you could use to describe it? How accessible is that visual imagery? How compelling is it? And how useful can it be as an adjunct to an existing advocacy campaign? There are also, of course, safety and security concerns that we would evaluate in the context of any proposed video advocacy strategy. Sometimes we find video acts as a deterrent to further abuse and really helps shield people on a local level from abuse. There are other times where it may actually provoke violence or official response, if you take the Taliban, for example, where videotaping and surveillance of any kind was actually outlawed and people could face penalty of death for minor transgressions under the Taliban regime.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wouldn't subject the Taliban then to the video treatment, in case it had consequences.

GILLIAN CALDWELL: Well, actually we did provide RAWA, which was the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan, with undercover technology which they used under burkas in a very well-known CNN-premiered documentary, and in which they'd captured, with our camera and with other cameras donated, beheadings and hangings and other egregious behavior by the Taliban. So it's not that we would rule out the use of video in a situation where there were serious security risks, it's that we work very carefully with partners to assess the risk versus the reward.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm interested in this issue of video vocabulary, and I wonder if you can apply it to one of your projects? I was thinking maybe the one called "System Failure."

GILLIAN CALDWELL: "System Failure" is a new film we produced on the California Youth Authority. It's basically a juvenile justice system which has been, by its own account, riddled with violence and abuse. The question becomes how do you make a persuasive argument using visual imagery to convince the California government to do something different about youth and juvenile justice concerns? So there what we did was we worked with Ella Baker to pull together a video which draws on the experiences of formerly incarcerated youth and their parents. And we created a compelling narrative through the stories of three individuals.

WOMAN: Since he's been in protective custody, he's gotten jumped four times. And it's a lock-up unit. Everybody's in their own room. The only way he can possibly get injured is because of staff neglect.

GILLIAN CALDWELL: And we combined that narrative with powerful imagery, surveillance camera imagery of a beating, much like Rodney King, that took place in the California Youth Authority, and photographic imagery which we were able to get from a variety of other sources.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the impact of "System Failure?"

GILLIAN CALDWELL: We had "System Failure" premiere in California's Congress on January 19th, and five days later the Senate Majority Leader announced her commitment to introducing sweeping legislation to overhauling the California Youth Authority.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What sort of equipment have you been providing to some of these advocacy groups, just little video cameras? How about cell phones? Isn't that going to take the place of the camera pretty soon?

GILLIAN CALDWELL: Yeah, well that's a big topic for conversation, of course. At the moment what we're donating are prosumer 3-chip digital mini-DV cameras. It's - [OVERTALK]


GILLIAN CALDWELL: That's your basic handycam. You can now buy at CVS for, I think, under 20 dollars, a disposable video camera, which will enable you to take just a little bit of footage. And that's an interesting alternative. I think the thing we notice about cell phone technology and cameras associated with that is that it's really only going to work in a situation where you're hoping to catch the abuse as it happens. And in most cases with our work, we're really dealing with narrative and with testimony and with experience that isn't as well-captured by the cell phone.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gillian, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gillian Caldwell is the executive director of Witness. The website is witness.org.
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