Gilles Peress

Gilles Peress, a Magnum photographer, is the recipient of numerous awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1970, Peress has covered a vast human rights terrain—from Northern Ireland to Bosnia to Rwanda to Latin America. Peress and the Human Rights Center’s Eric Stover co-authored The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar and have collaborated over two decades.

Artist statement:

Photography is under a curse: you are damned if you do and you are also damned if you don’t. I keep asking myself the fundamental question as to whether or not photography, very much in the same way the 18th century novels were, can be a vehicle for empathy, identification with the other and as such a vehicle for change and progress in Human Rights. Badly used photography can clearly represent a vehicle for propaganda or emotional exploitation of the worst kind and runs the risk of having the counterproductive effect of desensitizing the citizens. Not used at all, which is when the pictures are not being shot, when one succumbs to the postmodernist argument mentioned above, you enter into the black hole of not seeing and therefore a void of consciousness. Which do you choose?

Jean-Marie Simon

Jean-Marie Simon’s photographs have appeared in publications such as TimeThe New York Times, Harper’s, and the Wall Street Journal. Her widely acclaimed book Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton) tells the story of government-sponsored repression in Guatemala through photojournalism. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School.

Artist statement:

When I first traveled to Guatemala in 1980, an Army-directed government campaign of terror was morphing from selective State-sponsored killings to unbridled violence directed against a civilian population, many of them Mayan Indians. As a result, I assumed that my photographs of that brutality would reflect the iconic images that defined Central America’s conflicts of the era: pitch battles between Army and Leftist guerrillas; hacked bodies; horrified civilians; and gun toting death squad assassins poised for action. Yet at the same time, the four images chosen for the “Envisioning Human Rights” exhibition are bereft of drama: quiescent Mayan schoolgirls; a postcard perfect village enveloped in mist; an unremarkable Mayan Church procession; and a paunchy Army colonel directing a local parade.

Admittedly, each of the four photographs also suggests another story that redounds of the era. The portrait of the Ixil schoolgirls, for example, was made just after photographing the riddled corpses of four dead suspected guerrillas at the local army garrison up the street. The second image, Nebaj at dawn, was made during a trek over the mountain to Acul, a neighboring Ixil village where the Army had, in 1982, randomly killed 46 men, separating them into groups of “heaven” and “hell.” Those who went to “heaven” were forced to bury those who went to “hell.” The third, a village procession in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, was serendipitous: I was shopping for weavings as the celebrants exited the church. The last photograph, a solemn feast day procession in Nebaj, was made two years after the Army had subjugated that population into a choice of submission or death. Not by coincidence, Nebaj made international headlines in 2013 when it became the prosecution’s linchpin in its successful criminal trial for war crimes against a former head of state.

Thirty years later, and to my surprise, these four images now comprise part of a larger series I made from 1980-1990 of daily life in Guatemala beyond the scope of war. Taking photographs of rather mundane scenes in the middle of a brutal conflict may seem pointless. I certainly thought so back in 1980. However, at first I had no choice. I made pictures of the ordinary because, initially, it was hard to get images of conflict. When I arrived in Guatemala in 1980, the list of contacts that Amnesty International had carefully culled for me shrank by the day as people either fled for their lives or opted to live clandestinely.

To make matters worse, people were suspicious. Why would a foreigner be in Guatemala when everyone seemed to want to get out? For its part, the Army associated Americans with President Jimmy Carter’s (“Jimmy Castro”) reviled human rights agenda; the guerrillas suspected 26-year-old photographers of being CIA confederates; and civilians equated the click of a camera with a death sentence. Accordingly, I filled time taking pictures of women washing clothes lakeside; children laboring in coffee fields; raucous pre-Lenten discotheque parties; strip clubs; and life in urban slums.

Eventually, I gained good access to the army and the guerrillas and things in between, and I took pictures of those scenes. At the same time, however, to my surprise, my disdain for the ordinary image became upended when I realized that those same pictures now stood in stark counterpoint to the brutality of my later photographs of Guatemala, and, moreover, underscored the poignancy of a people under siege.

Each of these photographs of ordinary circumstances in the middle of a war stands on its own, not because they are great images – a tourist could have made the photo of the Church procession or Nebaj at dawn – but because they document a way of life that, through longitudinal subjugation, the economics of poverty, or merely the march of time has changed Guatemala’s landscape forever. Indeed, I did not imagine that in just a few decades, what I saw throughout the 1980s could change so radically. The Mayan huipil blouses in the photographs, for example, are now worn with day glow tee-shirts and sequined jackets; cell phone towers have replaced cornfields; remittance money from the U.S. has resulted in the construction of concrete houses that melt into concrete front yards; and the Army no longer micro-manages Mayans’ sacred festivals.

The other factor that I underestimated thirty years ago was how few photographs were being taken of Guatemala and especially of the countryside even into the late twentieth century, as Guatemala’s war raged. Guatemala’s miniscule wealthy class, the only one that could afford cameras, was about as interested in photographing a Mayan market as I was in capturing Disneyland. For the rest of the country, cameras were an unaffordable luxury, as inaccessible as an automobile. Even if one had a camera, it still meant taking the film canister to a photo store three or four hours away, a process that itself was daunting for the time and expense involved, let alone the inherent dangers in having to negotiate a dozen army road blocks along the way. Such difficulties today seem inconceivable: Guatemalans now send JPGs from villages located six hours from the nearest dirt road that then make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook in South Africa and Seattle two minutes later. Indeed it seems impossible that less than two decades ago such a feat would have been inconceivable.

When I first started posting photographs of “ordinary Guatemala” on Facebook and on my Website, I anticipated little reaction from Guatemalans. Surprisingly, however, people liked the ordinary Guatemala as much as the blood and guts Guatemala. In Nebaj, for example, where I spent a lot of time, people find their deceased relatives in the images, or they comment on how a particular house belonged to their uncle. They are astonished at how seemingly devoid of activity Nebaj was back then. Someone commented, “Where are all the cars?” Well, there were none. In places like Guatemala City, where the landscape is less changed, people use the photographs to show their children what Guatemala looked like under siege. Just as often, however, they love to recall what was ordinary. Once I posted on Facebook a photo that I thought quite silly, of an ice pop vendor asleep in downtown Guatemala City. People loved it; they went on about how cheap ice pops were in 1980. Another time, I posted a picture of a skeletal, malnourished baby who died the day after I took the photo. That image resonated with urban Guatemalans, who were genuinely astonished that such extreme poverty could exist in their own neighborhood.

Most surprisingly, a photo that has survived the now three editions of my book on Guatemala is a snapshot I made of a Mardi Gras crowd at a discotheque in downtown Guatemala City in 1980, as war raged just outside the capital. I included it in all three editions of Guatemala only because getting photographs of Guatemala’s wealthy class was more difficult than gaining access to a guerrilla camp. Rosina Cazali, a prominent Guatemalan curator, chose the discotheque photo as the subject of a talk she and others offered on my photos in 2008. I was surprised: I asked her why she liked that badly lit photo so much, why didn’t she go for an image that depicted repression and death or at least one that was beautiful? Rosina answered that, to her, that was the horror of war – that life could go on, with people wearing floppy chicken costumes and sipping drinks with pink umbrellas popping out without acknowledging what was happening under their own eyes.

The photographs I took in Guatemala between 1980 and 1990 provide no wisdom with respect to the past nor solutions to the problems that Guatemala confronts today, namely unbridled common crime and a porous border that has resulted in Guatemala becoming the next frontier in drug trafficking. At the same time, however, they offer the opportunity for Guatemalans to reflect on the war and its effects and to use the photographs as a means of remembering the past; honoring the victims; and recreating as accurately as possible a repository of historical memory for the next generation.

Ken Light

Ken Light is a social documentary photographer whose eight books include Valley of Shadows & Dreams, about California’s Central Valley; Texas Death Row, which offers an inside look at the nation’s largest and most active death row; and Delta Time, about rural poverty among African Americans in the South. He is the Reva and David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Artist statement:

For the last 45 years I have been witnessing and photographing the human spirit and the poignancies of modern life, trying to tell stories of things that I find appalling, unseen and at the same time beautiful. My focus has been inequality and human rights in America. I have traveled to photograph the lives of condemned men in the darkness of Texas death row, the hardscrabble and insufferable lives of Afro-Americans in the Mississippi Delta and the struggle of undocumented workers toiling in the fields of America. These are just a few of the places I have photographed and where I have witnessed this other America.

It has always been my belief that a documentary photograph has to be alive and compelling. It should be universal, it must get the community, the editors, the organizers to stop and take a second glance and ask why or how does this happen! It needs to speak to the heart and the mind. Photography has been part of the means to that goal for me, to have a voice in trying to create a world where human rights are respected and inequality and suffering are challenged. My photos have meant to be a call to action and some are bearing witness to a moment in human history. But always I have strived to find our humanity and our spiritual and human connections to each other.

Mimi Chakarova

For the past decade, photographer and filmmaker Mimi Chakarova has covered global issues examining conflict, corruption and the sex trade. Her film “The Price of Sex,” a feature-length documentary on trafficking and corruption premiered in 2011. Chakarova was awarded the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. She was also the winner of the prestigious Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting and a 2012 Dart Awards Finalist for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.

Artist statement:

Photography and film for me have always been deeply connected to human rights. I think the primary goal is to change perceptions and ultimately push for change. I can’t think of a single documentary project I’ve worked on that hasn’t been a human rights concern. The camera is the only tool I know how to use as a form of protest, as a weapon, as a way to stir consciousness and get people to think differently about what they are seeing and feeling.

Nic Dunlop

Nic Dunlop spent 20 years photographing Burma under military rule. His new book, Brave New Burma, captures a country emerging from decades of dictatorship, isolation, and fear. Dunlop is also the author of The Lost Executioner, a book about how he tracked down Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch. He was born in Ireland and is now based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Artist statement:

When I started out as a photographer, I saw photographs as evidence. I believed they could be a catalyst for positive change. Photographs humanize the abstract and show that human rights are about real people and real situations.

When I began working in Cambodia in the early 1990s, I became obsessed with the problem of landmines and what they were doing to ordinary people. I took the pictures with a burning anger and desire to see these weapons outlawed. In Burma, I set out to describe a military dictatorship and show how it affected the lives of people there. This approach to the problems in both countries seemed straightforward. But they opened up complexities that I was barely aware of.

More than anything else, it is photography’s inherent ambivalence that appeals to me now. A single image can contain a mass of contradictions. And it can be wonderfully subversive.

Take for example, the portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi. On first reading it is a straightforward portrait that celebrates her status as an icon of human and democratic rights. But for every positive attribute a less flattering one can also apply: she can be seen as courageous but arrogant, principled but self-righteous, determined but in-flexible. The more one looks at an image the more complex it becomes and conveys a truer reflection of a situation or personality.

This, for me, is central to photography’s longevity and appeal.  It defies a singular interpretation and warns against what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger the single story.”

Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado’s acclaimed work has spanned 100 countries since he began his photography career in Paris in 1973. His photographs have been presented in major press publications as well as books, including Other Americas, Sahel: l’homme en détresse, Sahel: el fin del camino, Workers, Terra, Migrations and Portraits, and Africa. His most recent published work (2013) is Genesis, a breathtaking photo collection of nature, animals, and indigenous peoples. Salgado’s work is toured in exhibitions around the world.

Stephen Ferry

Stephen Ferry (b. 1960, USA) is a nonfiction photographer, whose work engages issues of human rights, cultural survival and the representation of history. He collaborates with publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times and GEO,  and has worked extensively as a visual investigator with Human Rights Watch.

A fluent Spanish speaker, Stephen has developed an understanding of Latin American culture, society and politics from over 20 years of covering the region. His first book,  I Am Rich Potosí (Monacelli Press, 1999) looks at the long-term historic consequences of Spanish colonialism and silver mining on the native peoples of the Andes.  In 2012, he published Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict (Umbrage).  Product of more than ten years of documentation, *Violentology* debunks the common view of the Colombian conflict as a drug war,  revealing the deep historical and social roots of the conflict.

In general, Stephen emphasizes the material aspects of photography through an emphasis on texture.  His books and exhibitions communicate through the sense of touch as well as sight.  While thoroughly versed in digital processes, his heart remains with silver-based photography.

Stephen Goldblatt

Stephen Goldblatt is a photographer and acclaimed cinematographer, known for his work on “Angels In America,” “Julie & Julia,” “ Closer” and “The Help.”  Goldblatt, originally from South Africa, has been nominated for two Academy Awards. In 2007, he dedicated his photographic work in Burma to the Human Rights Center. Many of Goldblatt’s photographs were privately auctioned off to benefit the Human Rights Center.  In 2007, he dedicated his photographic work in Burma to the Human Rights Center, privately auctioning photographs to benefit the center’s work.

Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas is a documentary photographer who lives and works in New York. She is the author of Carnival Strippers (1976), Nicaragua (1981), Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997), Pandora’s Box (2001), and Encounters with the Dani (2003)She has co-edited two published collections: El Salvador, Work of 30 Photographers (1983) and Chile from Within (1990), rereleased as an e-book in 2011, and also co-directed two films: Living at Risk (1985) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991) with Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti. Her photographs are included in American and international collections. In 1992 she was made a MacArthur Fellow.