Saturday, February 09, 2008

Filming without Rose-Colored Glasses

The connection between human rights and DIY video-creation is often taken as a simple case in which democratizing access to the means of media production will magically effect social and political change for the better. Through his involvement with The Hub, a video-sharing site to publicize issues about human rights media that capitalizes on the work of more than a dozen activist groups, Sam Gregory has had to think much more deeply about the consequences of what might seem to be relatively straightforward tactical media efforts that connect victims and activists with the devices to document their experiences.

Gregory began his talk at the DIY Video Summit by looking back fifteen years back to the footage of the beating of Rodney King, which he described as an image immediately recognizable in Guatemala, Nigeria, and Australia (although in the United States its electronic dissemination is forbidden by copyright law). Although Gregory credits a "rich tradition of tactical media" that now spans forty years, he argues that there are many challenges to "smart narrowcasting" that can't be met by what Gregory calls "1990s technophilia" that is limited to simply distributing cameras. He showed a shot of a videographer on the Thai-Burma border, which could easily be an ad for Sony -- as he pointed out -- although Gregory opted not to Photoshop out the company's logo. He contests the ndexicality of image and idea that seeing is believing and suggests that we might now be in “another moment of technophilia,” since a Rodney King type case is actually very anomalous.

He noted that systematic discrimination against indigenous people in Papua Indonesia is “not reducible to the blow of a baton.” He also pointed out that the Rodney King video was actually used as a tool for the legal defense of the police officers who beat him, when it was slowed down in court.

Gregory said that his group aims to promote “video is for a reason not about an issue” and consider how video may be submitted to courts or presented in hearing in direct to decision maker advocacy. To illustrate the power of these materials, he quoted Donald Rumsfeld's expression of alarm that people "are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon."

The website for The Hub allows users to "create own profiles and identities" without relying on YouTube, because the culture surrounding this commercial video-sharing site actually facilitates comments that mock and degrade many human rights videos with "racist and xenophobic" language. The Hub also emphasizes "telling transnational stories" and the "power to contextualize and take action." For example, after seeing a video from Egypt of police brutality, visitors to the site are reminded "YOU HAVE WITNESSED THIS NOW GET ACTIVE."

Gregory said that his site encourages both "autonomously produced finished media" and "witness journalism" recorded by mobile devices to address "ideological, philosophical, and action needs" of supporters of human rights initiative. Commercial sites, Gregory asserts, are often where viewers are "content with spectacle" and "vaudevillian performing for the camera." Moreover, commercial sites are much more likely to participate in tracking transmission networks and participating in exploitation and surveillance via IP addresses. Furthermore, Gregory admits that the "pivotal moments of online video" in human rights cases including Abu Ghraib "were shared by the abuser who did it.” Finally, Gregory talked about the need for procedures of "informed consent" and awareness of protective protocols for disclosure that emphasize comprehensive transparency and voluntary participation. To protect the rights of the victim and survivor, Gregory argues that we must think about how remix culture relates to human rights culture. Thus, we may laugh at George Bush when he is remixed but not want to see survivor of torture or a sweatshop worker similarly re-edited for effect.

However, Gregory closed by reminding the audience of the promise of this media model for harnesses not only the "wisdom of crowds" but their "energy" and the fact that sites like The Hub gets beyond "mediated horror," because they are oriented toward action. Certainly, its mobility serves those who may be diasporic refugees or transnational victims of transnational crimes, such as sex trafficking victims. For Gregory the model isn't "DIY" but rather "DIWO" or "Doing It With Others" so that participants are co-producers not consumers. Over on Osocio, the hub for social advertising and non-profit campaigns, to which I contribute the occasional item, the messages crafted in conjunction with the traditional advertising industry may too often feed the consumer culture it critiques.

Sam Gregory has a great review of the session here.

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