“My Brother’s Keeper. Documentary Photographers
And Human Rights”
By Dr Gideon Polya
19 October, 2007
Brother’s Keeper” (editor Alessandra Mauro; Contrasto, Turin,
Italy, 2007) (for detailed analyses of contents and philosophy see:
http://mwcnews.net/content/view/17435/26/ ) is an important photographic
anthology of key facets of human rights abuses over the last century.
This book summarizes the work of 22 outstanding photographers who have
exposed human rights abuses through brilliant photography. This is certainly
a book that every person should have on their shelves as a potent reminder
of continuing gross human rights abuses in the world – and as
a complementary, salutary reminder that “there but for the grace
of God go I”.
Keeper” is not a comprehensive anthology – thus the text
barely mentions current atrocities associated with the Bush Wars that
have been associated (so far) with 8 million excess deaths (avoidable
deaths, deaths that should not have happened) since 1990 (see: “United
State Terrorism. 8 Million deaths & Media Holocaust denial”:
). Rather it is a thoughtful selection and expert analysis of how some
brilliant and humanitarian photographers have approached informing their
fellow Man about particular kinds of human right abuse.
Before reviewing the book
it is useful to simply summarize the contents. The book is composed
of 3 brief introductory essays followed by 20 chapters, each being devoted
to the work an outstanding individual photographer with a careful selection
of photographs (one chapter deals with 3 photographers). The book concludes
with a brief biography of each of the photographers.
The 3 introductory essays
are “Images and the culture of rights” by Professor Marcello
Flores (University of Siena) who discusses the emotional and descriptive
power of photography as a new language to convey the realities of human
rights abuse; “Right under our eyes. Examples of photography and
denunciation” by Alessandra Mauro (historian of photography and
Contrasto editorial director), which describes how the photographer
is not merely shooting what he sees but also conveying an interpretation
of reality; and finally a lengthier essay “The ethics of vision.
Photojournalism and human rights” by Susie Linfield (Director,
Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program, New York University) which
expertly analyses the use and abuse of the image in relation to human
The 20 subsequent chapters
deal with individual photographers from the end of the 19th century
to the present day. Each chapter involves a brief essay about the life,
inspiration and work of the particular photographer by either Alessia
Tagliaventi, Alice Tudino or Alessandra Mauro and a set of carefully
chosen photographs illustrating a particular facet of their work. These
photo-essay chapters are presented in roughly chronological order in
the book – the order in which the world became aware of these
horrors. All the photographs in the book, except for those in the last
3 chapters, are in black and white. The contents are simply summarized
below by photographer, chapter heading and photograph dates.
Jacob Riis (How the other half lives. Immigration and poverty in New
York at the end of the nineteenth century) [1885-1896].
Lewis Hine (Correct and appreciate.
Child labor in the USA) [1908-1913].
David Seymour (Between dreams
and denial. Children in the aftermath of war) .
Marc Garanger ( “The
casserole tied to the tail”. The Algerian War) [1960, 1961].
Peter Magubane (Between the
camera and me. South Africa under Apartheid) [1956-1976], by
Bob Adelman (The truth marches
on. The fight for civil rights in the USA) [1963-1968].
Philip Jones Griffith (Vietnam
Inc. War explained through economics) [1967-1970].
Li Zhensheng (Red-Color News
Soldier. Censorship during China’s Cultural revolution) [1966-1980].
Ginanni Berengo Gardin, Carla
Cerati and Luciano D’Allessandro (Fit to be Untied. The psychiatric
revolution in Italy) [1965-1968].
Josef Koudelka (A free outlook.
The broken dream of the Prague Spring, 1968) .
W. Eugene Smith (Minamata
disease. Mercury poisoning in Japan) .
Raghu Rai (The silence of
Bhopal. The chemical horror of an ecological disaster) .
(The essence of the desert. Famine in Sahel) [1973-1985].
Igor Kostin (The importance
of bearing witness. The Chernobyl disaster) 1986-1990].
Donna Ferrato (In private.
Domestic violence in America) [1982-1990].
Gilles Peress (Gathering
evidence. Genocide in Rwanda and in ex Yugoslavia) [1994-1996],
Tom Stoddart (Sad and necessary.
AIDS in Subsaharian Africa) [2000-2002].
Ulrik Jantzen (Revenge and
Punishment. Women disfigured by acid attacks in Bangladesh) .
Juan Medina (As we sleep.
Illegal immigration in Europe) .
Lucinda Devlin (The “Omega
Suites”. Capital punishment in America) [1991-1992].
The thrust of the various
chapter texts is that photography as an interpretative, skilled and
inspired Art form can reach the minds of Man in a way that cold statistics
and rational, scientific analysis are unable to. Thus we can intellectually
consider arguments for and against capital punishment, the statistics
of State-conducted executions in the USA, and assessments of how many
innocent people may have been wrongly convicted and executed by the
State for crimes they did not commit. However the cold, clinical, American
`“death suite” images of Lucinda Devlin take us to a different
level of emotional as well as intellectual comprehension of the remorselessness,
finality and obscenity of deliberately extinguishing the life of a fellow
The photograph by Tom Stoddart
on the dust jacket (see: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/17435/26/
) is illustrative of the transforming and visionary photographic Art
in “My Brother’s Keeper”. It shows the protectively
gloved hand of a Zambian nurse (no head shown) gently holding the emaciated
wrist of an AIDS patient (only the arm is shown) – but that fragile
wrist is held gently by only the thumb and two forefingers of the nurse,
conveying to the responsive observer the gentle and caring humanity
of the nurse and the helplessness and weakness of the AIDS patient who
is being so gently led by the carer to her bed. I found this to be a
deeply moving photograph that gets to the heart of the humanity of both
carer and patient.
Other photographs are variously
shocking, disturbing and moving images as readers will discover for
themselves. We have been saturated with images from television, books
and movies so that the very titles listed above draw upon our stock
of memories of the haunting faces of victims of war, famine, abuse and
physical trauma. Mere mention of the word “Sahel” evokes
images of lifeless desert sands, stoic mothers and emaciated children.
This book is a testament to the skill of photographic artists who have
conveyed the suffering and the wrongness in ways that mere words cannot.
I am deeply conscious of
the failure of words and statistics to get through to people in an age
in which we are saturated with both images and information. A major
part of the problem is the lying, racism and holocaust-ignoring of mainstream
media who resolutely turn away from the awful reality of 2 million Iraq
Deaths and 8 million Bush Asian Holocaust deaths (see “2 million
Iraq Deaths, 8 million Bush Asian Holocaust Deaths and Media Holocaust
Denial” on Countercurrents: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya071007.htm
). However another part of the problem is that people simply don’t
want to know or when informed and convinced about the horrendous numbers
simply cannot comprehend what those numbers actually mean in human terms.
I have recently published
a book entitled “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since
1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007; see: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/1375/247/
) that informs that 1.3 billion people have died avoidably since 1950
and that 16 million people die avoidably each year. I and others resolutely
attempt to inform an ignorant and unresponsive world about the carnage
on Spaceship Earth – whether in the Third World from deprivation
and passive First World neglect or in the war-ravaged Occupied Iraqi
and Afghan Territories - but to no avail. The horrendous violent and
non-violent avoidable death continues, with most of the victims being
CHILDREN. However anyone seeing the haunting images of suffering children
in “My Brother’s Keeper” would rapidly acquire or
confirm zero tolerance for racism, violence, injustice, warmongering
Words having failed, I recently
turned to creating HUGE paintings to promote Peace, East-West amity
and respect for women, mothers and children: specifically, Jerusalem
, Rosanna Madonna: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/16627/42/
, Scheherazade: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/16294/42/
, Bundoora Arabesque: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/15960/42/
, Sydney Madonna: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/10865/26/
, Manhattan Madonna: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/10766/26/
, Truelove: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/11031/254/
, Melbourne Madonna: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/13950/26/
, Isfahan Matisse: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/14417/26/
, and Alhambra Pollock: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/14082/42/
. Perhaps beautiful images can get through where words and horrendous
statistics have failed? Susie Lindfield in her introductory essay in
“My Brother’s Keeper” finally states the question:
“Will the culture of life vanquish the culture of death? Only
a fool would be sure of the answer.”
“My Brother’s Keeper” demonstrates that inspired,
artistic, polemical photography CAN get through to expose and redress
human rights abuses as exemplified by the importance of .extremely disturbing
images shown and discussed in the book in child labor reform in the
USA, reform of Italian psychiatric institutions and in overcoming racism
in the USA and South Africa. Not shown in the book, but known to everyone,
is the image of the naked, burnt girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam
– a single photograph credited with a major role in ending the
Indo-China War that was all up associated with 13 million excess deaths.
“My Brother’s Keeper” is a powerful and moving book
that deserves a place in everybody’s personal library as a continual
reminder of Man’s continuing active and passive inhumanity to
Man and that we cannot walk by on the other side.
Dr Gideon Polya published
some 130 works in a 4 decade scientific career, most recently a huge
pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive
Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London,
2003). He has just published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality
since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/1375/247/
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