I just caught Human Rights Human Wrongs at the Photographers Gallery – it’s over now. It was a collection of photographs from the Black Star agency, whose work was heavily used by Life Magazine in the 1930s and 40s.
The exhibition begins in 1945 and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Article 6 is missing, found again at the end of the exhibition, magnified and elevated on a purple wall: everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
There were many images which were hard to see – how bodies can be broken, how fingerprints can be taken from the dismembered hands of fugitives, an everyday occurrence of a corpse in a ghetto, dead babies in a line, the inside of a throat. I didn’t look to closely at those, but at the pictures of the leaders or the people affected by the fighting it was always worth looking longer than you thought you needed to.
The timeline of world events – spasms of violence, establishment of states, declarations of independence, the emergence of new leaders – is worth looking at for a sense of what was contemporary to what. Captions were rare, which meant that in the conflicts I was less knowledgeable about, and so had no pre-judgments about, I was forced to notice that humans break in the same places and everyone is a loved one. I was interested by how much more disturbing I found the images of police brutality against students the Berkeley riots in 1969 than, say, the fatal atrocities and acts of torture in South America, Africa or Asia. My double standards about civilised Westerners brutalising each other, I dare say. The most gripping image is a famous one – I think it’s an Alabama civil rights protest – a police officer built like a brick shithouse with a leash wrapped twice around his hand, the neatly dressed black man is walking away but the police dog is ruining his trousers. In the next image its teeth are embedded into one of his buttocks; he carries on. The dignity. And the dignity in the face of Martin Luther King, his arm bent high up his back as the police march him away.
The images in the exhibition were to do with conflicts, which meant that women tended to be shown as victims or relatives of victims (Patty Hearst, Czech demonstrators and women in the Israeli army were an exception). Equally, although raped women were depicted it was as an act of conflict, and I can’t recall any images of violence against minorities who weren’t political entities, such as gay people as gay people or women as women, but who were nevertheless comprehended in Article 6.