September 23, 2010

Witness: Putting a face on human rights

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. Continue reading

September 3, 2009

Ethics, human rights and social activism

What are our ethical responsibilities when recording video of people under oppression?

Guest post by Sam Gregory

In June, my colleague Sameer Padania and I were part of a panel at the Open Video Conference in New York City on Human Rights, Indigenous Media and Open Video. We used the opportunity to launch what will be a continuing effort by WITNESS to engage with the human rights issues around dignity, re-victimization, consent and security raised by contemporary online video.

Above is the video we used for the WITNESS presentation at the conference.  Watch and tell us what you think — what should WITNESS (and others) be doing in this area?

My colleague Priscila Néri’s post on the footage of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran is a thought-provoking place to start: Iran Protests: A Woman Dies on Camera — to post or not to post?

WITNESS was created over 15 years ago coming out of the Rodney King incident asking this question: What if every human rights worker had a camera in their hand? Now, nearly every citizen does have a camera — and it is participants, witnesses and perpetrators who are filming. Continue reading

April 9, 2009

Witness puts tools for empowerment online

This post originally appeared Jan. 31, 2006, at

JD LasicaOver the past couple of months, I’ve been having discussions with the good folks at about how Witness and Ourmedia could work together. Witness has announced an ambitious plan to build a set of publishing tools that would let those in repressive or abusive conditions shine a spotlight on what’s happening in their countries. We already have parts of that publishing infrastructure built, so it makes sense to join forces.

Tonight on PBS’s “Charlie Rose,” Witness founder Peter Gabriel and executive director Gillian Caldwell spoke eloquently about their stirring vision, which is now within reach. I transcribed this exchange:

Continue reading