Human Rights Advocate Sam Gregory Speaks at Conn

On March 28 in the Chu Room, human rights advocate Sam Gregory spoke to Conn students as the third speaker in our Human Rights Lecture Series. A trainer and video producer, Gregory supports video based advocacy. Many of his projects have contributed to concrete change in law and policy, as he often puts on screenings in front of governmental bodies such as the United Nations, United States Congress and the International Criminal Court. His lecture topic was “The Challenges and Opportunities of Citizen Witnessing for Human Rights.”

Gregory began by showing footage of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police. He explained that this footage, captured by passerby George Holiday’s chance filming, was the inspiration for the founding of Witness, of which he is program director. Witness works globally across a whole range of human rights issues, using video and technology to fight for human rights. Gregory said of his team, “We believed in the ‘seeing is believing’ model.”

As a trainer of many human rights filmmakers, Gregory said that an important question to ask when creating a film is: “How do we find a way to speak the language of human rights but also speak the language of storytelling and emotion?” He continued, “[There is the] dry language of [the field of] human rights… and then there’s the reality of what those rights look like on the ground.”

There are four specific steps Gregory believes must be taken in this process of creating a film, the first being that the work should be truly advocacy driven. The second step is to focus on specific audiences, which Gregory stressed is particularly important in the “cluttered media environment” we live in today. He gave the example of portraying human rights films in terms of legal framework when presenting to lawmakers, so that the content can then be acted upon. Gregory’s third step is to “craft storytelling around audiences and give space for action.” He defined the fourth and final step as ensuring the “safety, security and consent” of those being filmed.

Gregory emphasized the questions he keeps in mind in his line of work: “How do we enable people who use videos for human rights to do so impactfully, safely and ethically as possible?” In addressing the sheer amount of currently existing media, “As we are bombarded with images, how do we deal with too many of them without overwhelming the viewer?” Lastly, on the subject of human rights violations that are difficult to capture on camera, “How do you [cover] the issues that actually matter to people, such as torture… or freedom of expression?”

Our speaker also reflected on KONY 2012, the sensational YouTube human rights video that holds 96,941,918 views to date. He praised the video in the sense that it is “purposeful.” He added, “It’s made for an audience, and it asks them to do something. In all of those terms it’s successful as video advocacy.”

However, he recognized the drawback of the video, which is the level of simplicity to which it reduced its subject matter, an issue that human rights activists continue to struggle with as their audiences – particularly those of publicly accessible media campaigns – hold varying degrees of knowledge about the field. Thus, he says that a filmmaker must be the judge of determining when “is simple too simple?” and be constantly aware of his or her broad ethical obligation, as well as how his or her work should be “driven as much as possible by the people affected by it.” After discussing KONY 2012, he cautioned that it is of course a “complete anomaly,” and that most human rights videos do not merit that volume of viewers.

Gregory discussed the rise of the “ability to think and create and to watch.” He remarked in his closing that “Humans act on a combination of emotions and rationality and react to people like them.”

In a world where human rights do not often warrant the attention they truly deserve, the new technology that Gregory and his team at Witness are developing – along with what he described as average global citizens’ organic utilization of technology in terms of human rights, already available through sources such as YouTube – seems to be exactly what the field of human rights needs.

The last Human Rights Lecture Series talk will take place on April 24, when Richard Heinzl, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, will speak on campus.