‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. So starts the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the defining document of the post-Second World War era, and an artefact central to Human Rights, Human Wrongs, a new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery curated by Mark Sealy. Using photographs from the far reaching Black Star press agency archive, Sealy seeks to show how inhumanity functions in the context of press photography, how appalling acts are recorded, selected and circulated, and ultimately whether the resulting photographs work for or against a better world.
The exhibition constitutes an overwhelming number of photographs, of a huge range of events occuring across the middle part of the twentieth century. Mounted in small black frames, the archive prints flow across the walls of the gallery in an ongoing stream of images which echo the stream of abuses they record. Moving around the gallery is like leaping in a disorientating way across time and space, from Biafra, to Vietnam, apartheid South Africa to segregated America. One could speculate about the real life analogue this arrangement is designed to act as metaphor for. Perhaps the ongoing flow of history, the torrent of news images which we are more keenly aware of now than ever, or even simply the idiosyncratic organisation of archives. Which is correct is less important than the effect, which is overwhelming.
The majority of the photographs are presented as single, solitary moments within larger events; wars, murders, tortures, famines. However also dispersed amongst these single pictures are some sets comprising multiple images of the same event, producing an ongoing narrative of a short sequence which often flows out of and back into the more disjointed single pictures. The photograph above, Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, is an example of this. We see the event broken down into small fragments, from the martial procession just before its disruption, to the final moment when the young man is bundled uncomfortable on to the floor of a military jeep and driven away, to what fate we can only guess.
These larger sets of connected image give an altogether stronger sense of the generation and selection of these images in a news context, but what is notably missing is their final use of these images in print. There are some photographs of LIFE magazine in a vitrine showing photo essays from concentration camps like Nordhausen and Belsen, but they refer to events prior to the photographs on show and act more as a reminder of a continuum that the Universal Declaration was supposed to put an end to. Instead looking at this exhibition it feels rather as if the events of the Second World War were not the impetus to put an end to human rights abuses, but more the opening of a Pandora’s box of violence and cruelty, which has corrupted practically every country on earth.
On that note, one of the stranger inclusions from the archive is a cluster of Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Jimmy Carter, Yasser Arafat, Anwar Sadat, and in another part of the gallery, of Ho Chi Min, who won but declined the prize. These portraits of Nobel laureates (some more unlikely than others) are a reminder that the question of human rights is not always an area of moral binaries or clearly delineated figures of good and evil. Many people, organisations and nations which are seen as upholders of human rights in one domain are sometimes simultaneously guilty of terrible abuses in others. Equally one gets a powerful sense from this show our strange tendency to see human rights almost as a finite resource, and the common assumption that one person’s gain in this sphere comes at another’s loss, would seem to underpin a great deal of man’s continuing inhumanity to man.
Human Rights, Human Wrongs is at The Photographers Gallery from February 6th 2015 until April 6th 2015.