ALUMNI | It began, in a sense, with the nine minutes and 22 seconds of grainy amateur video George Holliday shot while standing on the balcony of his Los Angeles apartment. The infamous images of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers and the riots that followed the officers’ acquittal in 1992 showed the impact of citizens who turn the spotlight on those in power.
Nearly two decades later, billions around the world can shoot video (whether through mobile phones or cameras) and share those images with a global audience in real time with nothing more than a home computer and Internet access. As Sam Gregory MPP 2000 says, “Video has become the vernacular of communications.”
Gregory is program director for Witness, a Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit that uses video to expose human rights abuses. it was founded in 1992 by British musician Peter Gabriel, a longtime activist who saw in the Rodney King episode a model for using video in human rights campaigns.
The group began with the simple strategy of sending out hand-held cameras to activists, but soon realized that most people weren’t able to translate what they shot into compelling narratives. So over the years Witness has focused on helping human rights groups learn how to tell a story and think strategically about who their audience is most likely to be, a single legislator or members of an international organization, and how they want that audience to react. Aside from working directly with a few human rights groups on specific campaigns, they offer training to hundreds of activists a year (that number is expected to reach the thousands as Witness’s training goes online). They will narrow their focus to two main issues: gender-based violence in the context of armed conflict and political repression and displacement caused by development.
Gregory also hopes to bring training to policy schools, where he sees a gap in the way students are taught to use new media. Last January he led a workshop at Harvard Kennedy School. “It’s not about becoming a documentary maker,” Gregory says. “It’s about how all forms of advocacy are influenced by media.”