September 23, 2010

Witness: Putting a face on human rights

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Witness: Documenting human rights from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

JD LasicaAlot of people don’t think of video when they talk about social media, but it’s a critical part of the landscape. “Witness was founded on the idea of testimonies and powerful stories,” says blog editor Matisse Bustos Hawkes. “Formulating a story that can reach your intended audience is an incredibly effective way of putting a face on an issue.”

You’ve likely heard of Witness (they prefer the all-caps WITNESS), the international nonprofit that provides video storytelling training to human rights organizations around the world. Witness was founded in 1992 by musician and activist Peter Gabriel and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation as a project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First.)

While Brooklyn-based Witness is not a political organization, “there are a lot of things happening in the current events landscape, the news cycle, that can be seen or thought about in a human rights context,” Matisse said, citing the Iranian street protests of 2009-10 and the Saffron revolution of fall 2007 in Myanmar (Burma).

Witness helps frame and shape a story with the objective of reaching a target audience with a specific goal in mind. But Witness does not exist simply to convey the news. “We are telling a story from a particularly perspective,” as a documentary filmmaker might — from an advocacy perspective framed with the lens of human rights, she said during an interview at Personal Democracy Forum 2010.

Watch, download or embed the video on Vimeo.

The growing importance of visual literacy

Like any organization conveying documentary evidence, Witness constantly grapples with questions of authenticity and authentication — how do you know that the story being shown is true? “The issue of visual literacy is one that many of us activists and change-makers need to be acutely aware of,” she said, because images can be manipulated and video can be fabricated or shown out of context. “It’s an amazingly powerful tool to be able to snap photographs and take video and upload it — and add life-casting [live video streaming] into the mix.”

Witness is also addressing the issue of consent — making sure your video does no harm to the people who are filming and those who are being filmed. Indeed, Witness makes sure that topic is covered in its training with human rights activists.

Witness has long been one of my favorite nonprofits for its sublime combination of activism, deeply passionate commitment to social change and fervent attention to the essentials of visual storytelling. Witness rocks.

Witness’s presence in social media

Follow Witness on Twitter (272,933 followers)


Like Witness on Facebook

Witness on Causes, including Team WITNESS running in the ING NYC Marathon on Nov. 7 to raise money.

Witness’s Hub blog (periodically updated)


Ethics, human rights and social activism (Socialbrite)

Witness puts tools for empowerment online (Socialbrite) JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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