Video has the power to change the world by changing the way we see it. In Brooklyn, an international human rights organization called WITNESS is working to leverage video’s power by providing training and support to organizations to utilize video as a critical tool in their human rights advocacy work.

Managing Director, Jenni Wolfson – who spent years as a human rights activist for the United Nations before coming to WITNESS – has seen first hand the important role the documentarian plays in changing the world. Wolfson took some time to tell Repair the World about the quickly changing landscape of video and social media, the courage she sees in activists every day, and how her background as a Scottish Jew influenced her passion for human rights work.

Can you tell me more about WITNESS and the issues you address?
WITNESS was co-founded almost 20 years ago by Peter Gabriel and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First). The original idea was simple – if you give cameras to people who have witnessed human rights abuses or experienced abuses and teach them to tell their stories, those stories can be powerful tools for justice. Over the last two decades we’ve evolved because it’s not enough to simply give cameras to human rights activists, you have to give them technical training on how to film and edit, but equally important is the strategic distribution of the video and how it can be used as part of a larger human rights campaign.

How do you teach that?
We’ve developed a methodology of video advocacy that helps organizations get the right stories in front of the right audience at the right time. Our partner organizations’ video have been screened in court as evidence, shown to key decision and policy makers, and used as community organizing tools. We work with the organizations to develop video action plans to help them think through who their audience is and what voices they want to portray. It is so important when making a video to decide in advance what you’re trying to do – are you trying to shame your audience? To inspire, to persuade?

WITNESS’ motto is “See it. Film it. Change it.” What is the role of the activist in working to end human rights abuses?
Activists are playing an important role today in exposing human rights abuses and seeking justice. For example, we have been working in Zimbabwe with an organization called the Research and Advocacy Unit that works to combat violence against women during political elections. Thousands of women have been raped, tortured and humiliated during election times, and there’s been a climate of impunity about it – these crimes sometimes even get laughed at. This organization wrote important in-depth 60 page research reports, but had never picked up a camera before. We are working with them to use video as a complimentary tool for their work. When you give human rights a human face, it really helps people to connect.

In a way, WITNESS was ahead of its time. Video certainly existed 20 years ago, but the distribution channels like Facebook and YouTube were a long way off.
That’s true. Our original dream was to give cameras to the world. Now thanks to the cell phone companies the world has access to those cameras. There’s a much greater ability for people to tell their stories today – on the other hand, there’s a plethora of media out there, so it becomes so important to think strategically about how to bring a story to the surface. The length of videos has also changed. We used to work largely with 15-20 minute advocacy videos. But while those are still useful in some contexts like court, now people online expect 2-3 minute videos. So you have to adjust the way you share your message.

We are also engaging with social media companies to make those platforms safer and more effective. For example, an Egyptian blogger uploaded a video of the police slapping people. Viewers on YouTube flagged the video because it’s violent, which is against YouTube’s policies – and it got taken down. All of a sudden that video can no longer be use for advocacy because the footage isn’t there. We’re working to find ways to keep the important footage available in a way that does not violate YouTube’s policies, but can still be useful.

That’s so interesting – does that sort of thing happen a lot?
With the increase in online video, we are seeing more examples where there is happening. There was an article in the New York Times recently about this very issue. The media companies like Flickr and Facebook and YouTube want to abide by their policies to not show violence or to respect people’s privacy, but they realize that some of this material is exceptional. WITNESS and YouTube recently curated some joint blogs together about the challenges of safety and security of online video. WITNESS is also working with developers to create tools, such as a camera phone application built especially for human rights defenders that will allow them to blur faces in real time so as to provide greater protections.

What is the most challenging part of training people to do human rights-based video advocacy work? Is it more difficult to teach the technological skills, or to train people to have the courage necessary to do the filming in these dangerous situations?
We don’t have to teach courage. Just by being a human rights activist and by speaking out you’re already taking risks. The people and organizations we work with have already calculated those risks and decided they are worth taking. Perhaps they’ve experienced abuses themselves and don’t want them to happen to other people. So courage we see every day.

We’re also seeing more accidental activists – people who find themselves in the wrong place at the right time and just turn on their camera. They are not even thinking about it, they are just compelled to film what they see. We do train people about informed consent, safety and security though. We always give the worse case scenario – that the perpetrator who carried out the abuse will see the video. And we ask “Are you willing to take that risk?” And if so, here are some ways to mitigate the risks.

Do you connect your social justice work in any way to your Jewish identity/heritage?
I think if it wasn’t for my background I would not have ended up doing human rights work. I grew up in Glasgow, Scotland where the Jewish population was small and there was a lot of anti-semitism. From a young age I experienced what it was like to be discriminated against for my religion and that shaped my worldview. My family was also involved in the non-profit world, so I learned from them.

As a young adult I lived in Israel for a year and then I began working in Rwanda. As a young Jewish woman in my 20s it blew me away. I grew up with the ideas of compassion and tzedakah and the words “never again” constantly being said by family members – I realized that this was the genocide of my generation, and that I could do something. I wrote a one woman play called Rash about my experiences as a human rights activist in Rwanda. It starts off with my experiences of anti-semitism, so it’s all connected.

How can people get involved or volunteer with WITNESS?
We have excellent intern and volunteer programs. We have interns all the time and give them a lot of responsibility, so it’s an exciting internship. And of course we cannot do the work we do without funding, so people can always help through donations. [Donate to WITNESS here.]

And people can also stay informed with what we’re doing by singing up for our email newsletter, or following us on Twitter and Facebook. We also have an amazing blog that gets updated all the time where people can keep abreast of what we’re doing.

Find out more about WITNESS by watching their introductory video below: