Video Activism: See It, Film It, Change It

Human Rights Advocate Jenni Wolfson, photographed by Joi Ito

As real-time footage of Arab Spring demonstrations proved last year, the prevalence of cell phones with video capabilities – and fast Internet access – can enable anyone to document history as it unfolds, violence and all.

But the power of video to inform and transform the world is far from a new concept for Assembly speaker Jenni Wolfson, who visited on January 31 to talk about her work as the managing director of WITNESS. Co-founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel, Human Rights First, and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, WITNESS is an international nonprofit organization that “uses the power of video and storytelling to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses.” For the past 20 years, WITNESS has provided video equipment and training to thousands of human rights activists in 80 countries, enabling them to record personal stories of abuse and bring them to the attention of key decision makers, the media, and the public – seeking justice for the crimes perpetrated.

“If a picture is worth 1000 words,” Ms. Wolfson pointed out, “What is a video worth?”

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she continued, a video about the widespread enlistment of child soldiers resulted in the arrest of one warlord, whose criminal trial is currently awaiting a verdict. Another video about the horrors experienced by child soldiers appealed to families to discourage them from allowing their children to enlist.

Though cell phones and YouTube have facilitated the mission of WITNESS, Ms. Wolfson said, two challenges remain unchanged: privacy and authentication. Protecting victims who share their stories from punishment, or even execution, is a critical concern that WITNESS tries to address by obscuring faces on film and formally seeking permission to use stories. Verifying authenticity of videos is also important, a task that is being simplified with technology that can capture specific time and location data during filming.

“This is a most exciting time for WITNESS,” Ms. Wolfson affirmed. “The potential for using video to create real change is huge, and today we are hearing new voices from near and far.”

A central contributor to Middlesex’s Diversity Day this year, Ms. Wolfson will return to campus on February 4 to present her original, one-woman show, RASH, which is based on her personal experiences of working for the UN in Rwanda, as well as in other countries in crises.

© 2011 Middlesex School