Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Blog written by Sam Gregory, program director, WITNESS, and Patrica Zimmerman, professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Fetival
Part Two: Topographic Highlights and Conundrums of Viral Witnessing
Human rights ethics, documentary tradition and new emerging communities of affinity intersect and challenge each other during the sometimes fractured, sometimes convergent participation that is at the core of the creation, sharing and use of social media in general and for and against human rights.
This is a moment of epistemological challenge for both human rights advocates and documentary makers and scholars. What does it mean when documentation is no longer the purview of human rights documentors, and where documentary is no longer the purview of documentary-makers? What is the meaning of ‘documentation’ (‘x did y to z’) and/or ‘documentary in an age of a thousand, a million, a billion documentors/ documentarians, where monopolies of power and categorization are being erased, lost, zig-zagged across, confused and obscured? Just as human rights workers and journalists are wrestling with their roles, so too what is the role of the documentary concept and framework in this changing environment?
Let us outline some of the ethical issues arising in the context of social media and consider how these are implicated, complicated and challenged by a range of the potential subject positions of engagement/non-engagement from curators, to (re)purposeful witnesses, to corporate promoters and governmental aggregators. Broadly these areas of ethical concern might be termed – responsibility to the person filmed, responsibility to the story, and responsibility to act.
First, responsibility to the person filmed
Human rights is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. Human rights practice is often built around a victim/survivor-centered model focused on avoiding re-victimization, and grounded in lived experience that individuals who speak out or are filmed who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also at risk (vis. the people who were in the shot when Neda was murdered).
Yet when the witness-creators and re-creators of human rights media include those who are callous, caring and casual, perpetrators, committed and caught-up how do we protect a person from psychological re-victimization, and physical relation and re-victimization, as their image and words are shared in the circulatory networks of social medias, and in an environment of ubiquitous documentation and sharing where the absence of consent or the failure to secure fully informed consent will be increasingly commonplace?
Consider the footage from Egypt shot over the past few years – we have the iconic cases of police torture captured on cell-phone cameras by the policemen themselves such as the el-Kebir case (slide) where police documented their own torture of detainees, we have the serendipitous citizen footage collated on a blog like ‘Torture in Egypt’ (slide) in an act of virtual, empathetic witness and we have the purposeful documentation of human rights groups and documentarians from Human Rights Watch to Al-Jazeera to individual filmmakers. And in some cases the same images will appear in all three contexts.
Secondly, Responsibility to the Story
Within human rights field, there has recently been some discussion around what might be termed ‘responsibility to the story.’ Just as much as avoiding re-victimization how do we hold onto the integrity of the story of the person speaking from a position of challenge or oppression?
Narrative integrity springs both from the experiences themselves and how the person chose to represent them via words and images, but also from the surrounding discursive context and data that often shows what makes an emblematic or paradigmatic story representative of a bigger picture, or the internalized context of embedded metadata that places a testimony or evidentiary image in a particular time and place, and tracks its travels.
When we watch this video “Police Brutality – Police Get What They Deserve’ ( clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XExpnE-xPd8&feature=related ) which has been seen close to two and a half million times on YouTube, images of specific incidents of police and military abuse (including half-way through, and in this keyframe, an iconic incident of Egyptian police torture of recent years), stripped free of any internal or external context, are subsumed into a continuous narrative that loses the logic and individual circumstances of specific moments of violation. Surferknut23 – one of almost 14,000 people who have commented on the video - notes from one perspective and frame he places over the images: ‘all i saw when i watched this video was people who don't know how to listen getting their asses beaten’ while SplittingSkulls from a different perspective comments: ‘Gota love fucking stupid people. A bunch of random photos with no way of knowing what happened and videos from around the world where the laws are completely different then here adds up to police brutality? What a fucking stupid video.’
‘Responsibility to the story’ intersects with the role of the ethical witness as outlined in contemporary scholarship on testimony and witnessing. As Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas put it in the introduction to their book The Image and the Witness (2007) such an ethical witness carry the ‘memory of suffering… in a manner that empathizes with, rather than violates, the silent victim’.
Integrity of the story is also relational – how does an individual story relate to an aggregated collection of stories? This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the aggregative nature of social media and of the structuring of multiple stories in an interface. Jane Gaines has written – in the context of the Iraq war - about the prejudice of our culture against documentary images; how we are seen to be ‘bombarded with images’ rather than ever ‘bombarded with the written word’, and how moving beyond this position is critical for us to engage meaningfully. This comment seems particularly relevant in the context of the aggregative impulse. Here we enter the realm of digital and database documentary and software design. A range of sense-making mechanisms have been deployed recently by human rights and social justice curators and aggregators – beyond the generic interfaces of such sites as YouTube, the Hub, Facebook Walls and other video, social-networking and information-sharing platforms, they include tools like Ushahidi, used to aggregate text, video and photo from situations as diverse as Kenya’s elections and slums to Haiti post-earthquake, and present them on a mapping interface; as well as other forms of mapping mash-up and video-walls that collect and aggregate multiple voices into a collective statement and a whole range of other locative and interactive media formats. Here, we face ethical questions about how these frameworks and tools preserve the integrity of individual voice.
And this curational voice is not always creating from a position of activist challenge. In London last year during the G20 protests when a bystander was assaulted by police during the protests, citizen curators painstakingly aggregated what had happened from citizen and news media camera, cellphone and photographic images
But in the same year, following on from the legacy of British police’s use of Forward Intelligence Units to constantly film peaceful protestors, police acknowledged that they the tracked the activity of organizers for events such as the G20 protests and Climatecamp on Facebook. And in Iran last year, the Iranian security services, curated pictures gathered from YouTube videos and Facebook on their Gerdab website
And crowd-sourced identification of those involved, as well as asking people to share emails, videos and photos who have ‘broken the stability of Iran after the elections’.
Both of these principles mentioned above – that of the integrity of the victim/survivor’s experience, and that of the role of the ethical witness with responsibility to the story – are made problematic by the possibilities for remixing, re-appropriation, aggregation, curation and recirculation. These possibilities pull the material farther and farther from its source testifier and/or witness and from its original context – even as that process of translation may increase the chances that the footage will find an audience (even an unexpected one) that may be willing and able to respond.
WITNESS has been involved in promoting acts of (re)purposeful remixing and witnessing, supporting student activists within the US-based student anti-genocide coalition, STAND to re-edit a template video making the call for effective legislation to prevent genocide. Student chapters took the template video, as well as other footage made available to them from inside genocidal situations worldwide, and additional footage they shot within their state with local opinion-formers, as well as material they found online and re-purposed. With these materials they crafted individualized videos that spoke to the particular interests of their Senator.
To share some examples, students from Florida introduced their videos in their own voice and made personal appeals to their Senator’s Christian faith, but also identified Lost Boys from Sudan living in Jacksonville, Florida to join them in making a direct request to their Senator. Videos from California and Wisconsin expressed personal thanks to their respective Senators for their actions to date through montages of high school and college student voices; highlighted prominent community figures who the Senators would know and respect (for example, a respected academic and an award-winning humanitarian); and urged them on to do more. Other videos ranged from fully remixed videos to direct-to-camera video introductions and calls to action from student and influential community leaders in the Senators’ States.
Although in this case the video material was largely re-purposed within a tight framework the underlying question that occupies us as we contemplate this project and other acts of documentary remixing of human rights media and social media is how to balance responsibility to the victim, and responsibility to the story with the potential of remix approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that will generate activism in a younger digitally-literate generation, and to craft highly personalized narratives for advocacy audiences. How does this remix ethos relate to a human rights culture concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors and about the role of ethical witnessing – a culture that also has a strong sense of control over its material.
Responsibility to action
Finally – and there will not be time to consider this in depth in this paper - we need to consider what we might term an ethical ‘responsibility to action’ - the ways in which different forms of social media create effect on their audiences or participants, moving them to action (since ultimately, at least from a social change perspective, this is the goal). To what extent do they create political mimesis, to what extent do they engage the interstices between emotion and rationality, to what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers? To what extent are they coupled to political action?
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog posting written by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
For the last two years, we (Sam Gregory and Patricia R. Zimmermann) have been collaborating on theoretical and analytical research, protocols, and best practices in the burgeoning world of international human rights social media. We've published some essays, we've organized panels at the Visible Evidence Conferences on Documentary, we've written several papers, and we've participated as featured guests on the <Empyre> new media art listserv, moderated by digital theorist Tim Murray and digital artist Renate Ferro.
In our current project (recently presented at Visible Evidence in Istanbul, Turkey), we are interested in upacking the ethical engagements of human rights social media in international networks. We ask, are these forms spreadable, contagious, viral, malleable, fluid, ubiquitous, dangerous? Or all of the above?
Our work here is organized in three parts as an opening up and exploration of the topographies and ethical issues of witnessing with mutable, spreadable, viral, and/or contagious media. In the hopes of generating a more international conversation, we've decided to post our recent work on the Open Spaces blog, to crowdsource ideas, debates, and best practices in the international human rights and documentary communities about social media formations and practices.
Part One develops a definition of social media and human rights, outlining our assumptions, and mapping some significant shifts. Part Two provides some international examples from the variegated topography of social media for human rights in terms of a set of potential ‘responsibilities’. Part Three elaborates a provisional set of working principles and protocols for ethical practices of human rights social media, where production, distribution and exhibition are collapsed into new formations. We share this last part in the hopes of inviting all of you into sharing your ideas into the ethics of circulatory networks and human rights.
Part One: Definitions, Shifts and Assumptions
Everyday witnessing and documentation of human rights violations around the globe are increasingly commonplace along a continuum of amateur to professional, casual to committed. Much is shared within a context of social media. We define social media as work that integrates Web 2.0 technology with social interaction, user participation, dissemination, sharing and feedback discussion. It incorporates a range of technologies such as social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer modes as well as the cell-phone, in a world where there is now one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons.
The following significant and salient historical shifts have prompted our investigation into the issues of social media, human rights documentary, and viral witnessing. These include:
This topography constitutes a new, exciting, contradictory landscape for human rights documentary and documentation work. On the one hand, dissemination and engagement offer ways around limited access to information and images and engage new publics, on the other hand, their malleability, accessibility and fluidity can be dangerous.
At the same time as many of the participatory engagements of social media are contained within consumerism and state agendas so, in their more bottom up, localized, pull-in forms, these user-generated social media forms have propelled an abundance of both raw and produced social change media. With spreadability, malleability, and fluidity their operative modalities, these social media multiply opportunities for transparency, participation and action, but also provoke concerns about authenticity, factual accuracy, point-of-view, and how images transform into action, outcomes, as well as danger.
These contradictions of social media continue traditional documentary and activist documentary debates about the ethics of image making and interaction with subjects (and here we acknowledge the important writing of Brian Winston, Tom Waugh, and Bill Nichols) and open up new areas of exploration into the questions of circulatory networks, and repurposing
As visual media is reworked, remixed and re-circulated by many more people (amateur, professional, and prosumer), what responsibilities do we have as producers, circulators, curators, advocates, aggregators, re-mixers and viewers?
Stay tuned for Part II and Part III. Until then, we hope you'll join the conversation here on Open Spaces.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
When we started thinking about programming Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia to explore new media in the region last fall, I sent frantic emails to friends who work in international human rights independent media. Well, it was more a cry for help, as I was programming this exhibition from half a world away and not moving to Singapore until January. I was anxious.
My colleague and writing collaborator Sam Gregory from Witness, dedicated to collaborative and user generated human rights video and social media, suggested—more accurately, insisted—that we contact EngageMedia, a non profit organization based in Indonesia and Australia working with new media and social justice issues in innovative ways.
Many emails, website searches, and phone calls later, I finally connected to Enrico Aditjondro, from Indonesia, the Southeast Asia Editor for Engage Media. We’ve invited Enrico to present on our panel on human rights and new media at the Open Space exhibition and ICA next week. We’ve also curated the Engage Media site as one of ten featured organizations in our online exhibition. You can visit here: http://www.ica2010.sg/openspace/view.html
Enrico has lived and worked in Indonesia, West Papua, the USA, Australia, and Timor Leste. He started his journalism career in 1998 when he joined The Maritime Workers’ Journal in Sydney, reporting on labor issues and the shipping industry.
Seeking more excitement, he moved to Jakarta and joined the Southeast Asia Press Alliance in 2000. He traveled and worked in Timor Leste with UNESCO and UNTAET. Enrico also campaigned around corruption issues for Transparency International-Indonesia.
In 2005 he was the Southeast Asia Representative for the International News Safety Institute. In the same year he co-founded and became managing editor of Paras Indonesia, one of the country’s leading bilingual social-political website at the time.
Enrico was a fan of EngageMedia before joining the group in May 2009. He is now based in Jakarta, writing, producing films and maintaining the Southeast Asia content for EngageMedia . You can meet him in person next week at ICA 2010 in Singapore.
Patricia Zimmermann: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you initially got involved in EngageMedia?
Enrico Anditjondro:I've been a journalist and media consultant for a little bit more than a decade. I started in texts and photography, and gradually started to use videos and began filmmaking.
From the start, I've been a firm believer that objectivity is a myth, although in reporting, there are principles and ethics to follow. So, when I found EngageMedia.org, I was impressed with its ideas of voicing the voiceless with videos - well produced videos preferably, and became a fan of it immediately.
Later on, as my ideas and struggles are continued to be limited or even obstructed by the mainstream media I was involved in (i.e. I was tired of the ABC News's quest for Islam fundamentalism stories in Indonesia), EngageMedia became even more relevant and decided to join when the opportunity arrived.
PZ:Can you provide a snapshot of the work of Engage, for readers who might not be familiar with your organization? How is Engage similiar and different from other NGOs working in social justice issues?
EA: EngageMedia's flagship is www.engagemedia.org, a video sharing site on social justice and environment issues in Asia Pacific.
In shorter words, we like to think ourselves as YouTube for activists.
Aside from the site, we organize skill sharing workshops on online video distribution strategy, and video archive; video camps; research; and capacity building programs for organizations. We have similarities with Witness and its Hub, but we focus more on already published videos. We urge people more on distribution strategy and better use of videos in social justice and environment campaigns.
PZ: Can you explain how EngageMedia mobilizes the intersections between user-generated content, social and political issues, aggregation, and new technologies/interfaces? What opportunities and challenges has Engage encountered?
EA: EngageMedia chooses to have closer relations with its users.
Our editors frequently talk to users, suggesting ideas, and on the other hand, susses out who would seek technical advice as well requests to promote specific videos.
All of videos in EngageMedia are licensed under Creative Commons also, and the download feature is easily accessible, therefore campaigners and educators who need special videos can search and find videos easily and download them in high quality for their purposes (although still bound by the Creative Commons license conditions chosen by the filmmakers).
And since EngageMedia is run by its own Plumi software, we provide updates to users for new versions or features. One big agenda we have forward is to develop more mobile based technologies in our scope of work.
PZ: What do you see as some of the biggest issues and debates confronting new technology and social justice concerns in Asia and the Pacific?
EA:The fast rise of internet users in Asia and the Pacific is not followed by the equally fast internet infrastructure.
Nowadays, internet-able devices are very common all over but slow bandwidth remains an issue.
In Indonesia, half the new internet users are actually people using mobile devices for social networking applications. This trend is also followed by the overflow of pushed information, and decreases in the quality of reporting accuracy as reporters (and reporter-wannabees) try as fast as they can to post articles.
Facebook status unfortunately became another source of information, and often their inaccuracies have created problems. However, this phenomenon could also become strengths if used tactically. The other issue to be debated is the digital technology revolution which does not favor the marginalized societies who have very little technological access.
PZ: What are some projects and initiatives that you have worked on for Engage that you see as significant or that have had interesting outcomes?
EA:Being the Southeast Asia Editor for EngageMedia gives me the opportunity to watch hundreds of videos produced by filmmakers from the region.
The role also allows me to meet many of them during our Online Video Distribution Strategy Workshop in Singapore and various cities in Indonesia.
More and more filmmakers are now familiar and capable of using online tools for their video distribution and archiving, and slowly, EngageMedia is becoming a source for information and videos for journalists, educators, campaigners and filmmakers looking for inspirations.
PZ:.What are some of the issues that Engage and you confront in relationship to new technologies and on the ground issues and politics?
EA: In areas where government restrictions are prominent, the internet is a very useful alternative for many media makers.
However, in some places, the internet has also become a target for scrutiny - unfortunately this is caused by pornography and social networking applications. Therefore, more discussions about media regulations and cyber-law are needed so that the restrictions can be diverted.
On the other hand, filmmakers and campaigners are often enjoying so many iterations of these technologies that many have forgotten that the people they are fighting for have limited access to it.
The good old transmitter radio still works wonder in many remote places, much more than YouTube-- or even EngageMedia.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Torquing Documentary Form
Top ten lists of commercial films, high end art exhibitions, and books from the big publishers jam the press and commercial news websites this time of year.
I devour these lists. I end up saving them for my Netflix queue and my travel reading.
That said, I find myself a lot more energized by projects that jack me into thinking about archives, history, concepts, politics, real people, real struggles and documentary practice in new ways. Sites that seduce me to keep coming back to see what’s new. Projects that prod one sentence: gosh, I wish I could think like that.
The projects on my list engage some common strategies: collaborative, interactive, merging the digital and the real, the urgent and the imaginative. These are not auteurist projects—they are convenings.
And they are in alphabetical order, in no particular ranking of importance.
A big huge shout out to the ever-inventive, open space afficionado Dewey Schott at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, who conjured up this great idea of ten best lists of the year for public media so that the mainstream press can't maintain its monopoly on curation and aggregation.
1.The Hub, by Witness (an NGO based in NYC)
A user-generated, issue-focused, easy-to-search portal for uploading videos from around the world documenting a staggering array of human rights including armed conflict, labor, children’s rights, prisons, sustainable development, discrimination, violence, health, women’s rights, humanitarian issues, justice. A model of ethical, collaborative, social media, where uploading and sharing means taking action and campaigning for real world change for real people, not avatars or products.
2. Iranian Social Protest on Facebook
The Zapatistas wrangled the internet for politics. 15 years later, the Iran protest movement has nabbed social media and grabbed attention for turning recent updates into something more than your favorite youtube video or latte hang out. Despite the US state department’s enthusiasm for toppling regimes by any digital means necessary, Facebook and blogs have rendered the separation between the local and the global inoperative. Check out the link above for news about the men in head scarves movement.
3.Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, Nunuvut, Canada
From Zacharias Kunuk and Ian J. Mauro, an exciting, interactive web project the gathers centuries of Inuit knowledge by elders and hunters on climate change in the Arctic, featuring blogs, multimedia, raw footage, live internet shows and skype. Say farewell to Al Gore and his multimillion dollar power point films.
4.Post Secret, by Frank Warren
This community art project is simple: people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. But the results are complex: condensations of psychic fissures and social relations. Images and words are posted on the blog daily. Several books have been published from this material and hit the NYT bestseller list. But it’s still a model of engagement worth taking a look at..and, according to its own website, it’s the largest advertising free blog in the world. Send one in. Noone will know it’s you.
5.Public Secret, USA, project conceived by Sharon Daniel in collaboration with Justice Now
A massive collaboration between digital artist Daniel, the Vectors Journal at USC, Justice Now, and incarcerated women. It explores gender, family, and the prison industrial complex with an elegant, spared down design that remaps our preconceptions all the first three. It also cuts through decades of documentary debate about images, victims and ethics with more clarity than most scholarly essays on the subject.
6.RMB City, China, by Cao Fei, aka in SL China Tracy
A project spanning RL (real life) and SL (Second Life) that satirizes overdevelopment and overbuilding in China through avatars and buildings in Second Life, and a web site promoting the RMB city including press releases, city channels, manifestos, maps, city views and a blog. Strapped for cash? You might want to book your next weekend getaway in RMB City…
7.Sarai, Delhi, India
The go-to hub in South Asia for cracking open the liminal zones between the digital and the real with the edgiest new media theory around, practical and concept-changing on the ground projects mapping urbanism, and endless innovations in convening people and ideas with art shows, editable and free CDs, books, audio, free software, publications, translations and dialogue across languages (Hindi and English), and cybermohallas (you gotta love it—exploring the alley ways and corners of communities and cities.)
8.Saving the Sierra, California, USA, project coordinated by Catherine Stifter and jesikah maria ross
A compelling, elegant, clear-sighted regional project chronicling the culture, economy and environment of the Sierra Nevada as it confronts development challenging sustainability. It marshalls public media, radio documentary, citizen storytelling, and story mapping. The multiple and diverse voices in this project as a mighty and awe inspiring as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and the sequoias, the spectacles and clichés of the Sierras.
9.Soweto Uprising, South Africa, project by Ismail Farouk and Babak Fakhamzadeh
An interactive website creating a living archive and new cartography of the student uprisings on June 16, 1976 with participants and people living in Soweto, with video mapping, blogs, routes that are tagged, Flickr projects for image uploading, comments on the maps of the routes.
10. Transborder Immigrant Tool, A Mexico/US border Disturbance Project by Ricardo Dominguez, Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, and Jason Najarro
A mind-blowing and controversy-igniting project where cell phones as digital coyotes meet phone apps meet GPS to help immigrants from Mexico cross the border. Before they’ve been built, they’ve generated a lot of blowback all ready. Start googling and find out what all the fuss is about. And then, start thinking apps and maps as a new media form.