In a chapter I contributed for the volume, Information Politics, Protests, and Human Rights in the Digital Age, edited by Mahmood Monshipouri, I ask, "What Does Human Rights Look Like?" My goal in posing the question is to explore the complex ways in which human rights gets expressed through visual culture. An assumption guiding this inquiry, or maybe more of an observation, is that when human rights organizations use photographs, produce campaign videos, or get active in social media, the representation of norms and ideas of human rights matters. I'm essentially curious, in this and other projects, in how human rights practices align with human rights principles.
To begin, I describe three humanistic expressions that all rotate and spin through the human rights universe: aid, advocacy, and activism. I believe they are each distinct spheres of practice with unique histories and political perspectives, and deserve not to be confused for one another:
Aid is the humanitarian practice of helping the less fortunate other;
Advocacy is the practice of defending the rights of others;
Activism is the practice of claiming one's own rights.
The visual culture of human rights borrows from and trespasses among each of these expressions, generating three visual motifs: desperation, determination, defiance.
DESPERATION: classic troupe, long criticized, still in rotation; relies on pity for the other and demands we assist.
DETERMINATION: the other is seen as a deserving partner, empowered and able to stand on her own.
DEFIANCE: the viewer is intended to see herself rather than the other, and to see herself as empowered.
Transnational human rights advocacy is in reality none of these things. As a sphere of practice, it defends the rights of others from a distance. It is not cut from the cloth of a traditional social movement as the third motif suggests, although at least "defiance" speaks to a sense of protest that I think is appropriate.
My point in the chapter is that the visual representations of human rights advocacy do not accurately reflect the practice, which suffers for it. Expressing global solidarity through political action, which I think captures what transnational advocacy is and should be, demands a fitting graphic motif in order to communicate its purposes and build a movement around its principles.