Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Human rights: from bathos to indignation

The Face of Human Rights

By Walter K&auml;lin, Lars M&uuml;ller &amp; Judith Wyttenbach. Lars M&uuml;ller, &pound;26.75<br>

It is hard, if not impossible, to doubt the purpose of this book. Compiled by Lars Müller, the Swiss-based publisher and designer of thoughtful books on art and culture, this volume is a weighty, 720-page response to the climate of fear and cruelty that has taken hold of our world in recent years. The Face of Human Rights is Müller’s answer to the abuses at Guantanamo, the desperate plight of North Korea’s starving peasants and China’s appalling use of public executions to cow its population. The book is Müller’s way of making a difference. And, of course, he is right. Publishing ought to be much more than mere printing, packaging and selling.

Müller – and his two co-editors Walter Kälin, an academic, and lawyer Judith Wyttenbach – have gathered together declarations of human rights and statistical records of their abuses. This textual data is interspersed with moving personal testimonies and, most importantly, hundreds of dramatic, full-page photographs by leading photojournalists including Sebastião Salgado and Thomas Dworzak. The answer to the question ‘Why is half the planet hungry?’, for instance, may be addressed by charting world poverty: but it is turned into an indictment by Müller and his colleagues by the inclusion of a series of images which begins with Chris Steele-Perkins’ heart-rending pictures of starving children in Africa and ends with Martin Parr’s acid photographs of European gluttony.

It is hard to imagine this book being read from cover to cover (and here I have to admit defeat: the legal judgments, prosaic UN resolutions and statistics from International Labour Organisation reports are hardly compelling reading). The reader is more likely to adopt it as a work of reference (and there is no reason to doubt that this is precisely how the book will be used, not least in schools). Lars Müller however describes the book as a ‘visual reader’ – a picture book, albeit with highly serious intent.

One precedent for this kind of visual catalogue was Edward Steichen’s exhibition ‘The Family of Man’, which toured the world on an official US ticket from 1955. The product of an open invitation to photographers from all nations, Steichen sought to demonstrate the common contours of human experience. Determining the format and scale of the images exhibited, Steichen and designer Paul Rudolph exerted authorial control subjugating the individuality of both image and author. Close-up prints of women’s faces enduring the pain of childbirth and the everyday joys of children at play suggested universal experiences that might override the differences of history, politics and geography. Steichen’s project was shamelessly sentimental, presenting an illusory utopia of authentic human experience that seemed barely touched by war, cruelty or hunger.

The messages of these two projects are clearly very different. Steichen’s bathos has been matched by Müller’s indignation. Yet both share in the belief that photographs can be ‘read’. Drawing heavily on the humanistic tradition of photojournalism, Müller’s book re-asserts the power of the camera to capture injustice, a view shaken by the assault on documentary in the 1980s led by inherently pessimistic thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard who argued for the ‘disappearance of the real’. The wheel has, of course, turned and Müller’s book reflects a new mood: think of the recent appearance of documentaries on our cinema screens and Susan Sontag’s vigorous reassertion of the power of images in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. This shift does not, however, suddenly make images of poverty and injustice unproblematic. The meaning of a single photographic image is notoriously slippery. It can be carefully fixed or provocatively discharged by the use of accompanying words or contrasting images. The most thought-provoking pages in this long book are those where words and images ricochet unexpectedly. Oscar Wilde’s 1891 critique of acquisitiveness and defence of ‘true’ individualism is revitalised by appearing alongside Ian Barry’s 2001 photograph of self-satisfied members of the Louisiana Rolls Royce Club; Wilde’s attack on conspicuous consumption makes the limited imagination of the wealthy all the more apparent. Such provocative collisions of word and image are unfortunately few in The Face of Human Rights: the sober design and editorial order of this book err on the side of caution. The theme is too important to risk dilution.

Müller’s concept of a ‘visual reader’ is nevertheless inhibited when some of the injustices which man does to man (or often to children and women) have simply not been photographed. One of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century was the purges and gulags of Stalin’s cruel regime, yet few cameras witnessed the Terror (and it was left to poets such as Anna Akhmatova to act as witness). At other times, the very act of taking a photograph is an abuse in its own right. After all, the most memorable images to emerge from the recent war in Iraq were not produced by sensitive photojournalists in the Magnum mould: they were taken by American and British soldiers as part of the indignity they heaped on their captives. Such brutal images do not appear in this ‘visual reader’. Even when the lens has focused on ugly scenes, the editors have selected those images which demand empathy from the viewer. Ultimately, it seems that Müller – like Steichen before him – is committed to the power of photographs to improve the world.