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The Participatory Panopticon and Human Rights: WITNESS' Experience Supporting Video Advocacy
Unformatted Document Text:  arenas, and the difficulties of establishing an ethical relationship, a community of witness, at a distance. Most human rights situations are embedded in contexts of structural complexity, long histories of repression and reaction and many actors with different agendas. WITNESS tries to help its partners resist the “globalization of local images stripped of their meaning” (Gregory, 2006) by keeping intact local voices in local contexts, and in a way that is faithful both to the direct visible violence of a situation as well as the underlying structural causes. Yet, as you move testimony and images between different advocacy and media arenas it often more effective to strip out some of the markers of specificity. For example, it may not be useful to include the details of a particular local offensive, or set of local grievances, related by an interviewee in a village in eastern Burma, as you work to create a video that conveys a set of experiences across a whole region. From experience, I know that with many audiences too much analysis of the particularity and nuance of a testimonial story may undermine it as an advocacy call. You are balancing the ethical demands to be true to the people who speak out, a recognition of the real complexities and the desire to make viewers genuine ethical witnesses, against the need to convince, shame or horrify a distant audience with a medium whose power often lies in directness both visually and in narrative. In addition one is wrestling with what Tom Keenan has identified as ‘the paradox of rights talk: the claim is meaningless if it is not universalizable, but it is effective only if it is rooted concretely,’ 18 since all rights claims are inherently a ‘pleas on behalf of everyone, passing through someone in particular’. Frequently you also have to make tough choices in balancing the visceral power and problems of raw visual evidence (for example, of graphic violence) with the use of testimony. Snaphot: I’m sitting in the back of a shared taxi in an authoritarian country in the Middle East, half-way down a long rural road. A man leans back and holds out his cellphone to me – ‘Change?’. I’m certain he doesn’t want my old Nokia, far less impressive than his latest Spiderman-themed phone. Then he starts to show me the clips he has filmed or had shared with him – including a series of “happy-slapping” sequences showing people abusing each other. I realize he wants to swap videos. Fifteen years ago a video-camera was a household novelty. Now a camera cellphone is ubiquitous. Nokia is the largest digital camera manufacturer in the world and the best-known DRAFT NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION The Participatory Panopticon and Human Rights: WITNESS' Experience Supporting Video Advocacy 10

Authors: Gregory, Sam.
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arenas, and the difficulties of establishing an ethical relationship, a community of witness, at a 
distance. Most human rights situations are embedded in contexts of structural complexity, long 
histories of repression and reaction and many actors with different agendas.  WITNESS tries to 
help its partners resist the “globalization of local images stripped of their meaning” (Gregory, 
2006) by keeping intact local voices in local contexts, and in a way that is faithful both to the 
direct visible violence of a situation as well as the underlying structural causes.  Yet, as you 
move testimony and images between different advocacy and media arenas it often more effective 
to strip out some of the markers of specificity. For example, it may not be useful to include the 
details of a particular local offensive, or set of local grievances, related by an interviewee in a 
village in eastern Burma, as you work to create a video that conveys a set of experiences across a 
whole region. From experience, I know that with many audiences too much analysis of the 
particularity and nuance of a testimonial story may undermine it as an advocacy call. You are 
balancing the ethical demands to be true to the people who speak out, a recognition of the real 
complexities and the desire to make viewers genuine ethical witnesses, against the need to 
convince, shame or horrify a distant audience with a medium whose power often lies in 
directness both visually and in narrative. In addition one is wrestling with what Tom Keenan has 
identified as ‘the paradox of rights talk: the claim is meaningless if it is not universalizable, but it 
is effective only if it is rooted concretely,’
 since all rights claims are inherently a ‘pleas on 
behalf of everyone, passing through someone in particular’. Frequently you also have to make 
tough choices in balancing the visceral power and problems of raw visual evidence (for example, 
of graphic violence) with the use of testimony.
Snaphot: I’m sitting in the back of a shared taxi in an authoritarian country in the Middle East, 
half-way down a long rural road. A man leans back and holds out his cellphone to me – 
‘Change?’. I’m certain he doesn’t want my old Nokia, far less impressive than his latest 
Spiderman-themed phone. Then he starts to show me the clips he has filmed or had shared with 
him – including a series of “happy-slapping” sequences showing people abusing each other. I 
realize he wants to swap videos.
Fifteen years ago a video-camera was a household novelty. Now a camera cellphone is 
ubiquitous. Nokia is the largest digital camera manufacturer in the world and the best-known 
The Participatory Panopticon and Human Rights: WITNESS' Experience Supporting Video Advocacy

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