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Review: “My Brother’s Keeper. Documentary Photographers
And Human Rights”

By Dr Gideon Polya

19 October, 2007

“My Brother’s Keeper” (editor Alessandra Mauro; Contrasto, Turin, Italy, 2007) (for detailed analyses of contents and philosophy see: ) 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”.

“My Brother’s 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 rights abuse.

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) [1948].

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) [1968].

W. Eugene Smith (Minamata disease. Mercury poisoning in Japan) [1971].

Raghu Rai (The silence of Bhopal. The chemical horror of an ecological disaster) [1984].

Sebastião Salgado (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) [2001].

Juan Medina (As we sleep. Illegal immigration in Europe) [2004].

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 human being.

The photograph by Tom Stoddart on the dust jacket (see: ) 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: ). 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: ) 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 and war.

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 Madonna: , Rosanna Madonna: , Scheherazade: , Bundoora Arabesque: , Terra: , Sydney Madonna: , Manhattan Madonna: , Truelove: , Melbourne Madonna: , Qana: , Isfahan Matisse: , and Alhambra Pollock: . 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: ).



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