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culture

Photographing Human Rights and Human Wrongs

A new Ryerson Image Centre exhibition depicts 50 years of the global fight for civil rights.

Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1965. Reproduction from the Black Star Collection at Ryerson University. Courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre. Photo by Bob Fitch.

Human Rights Human Wrongs
Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould Street)
January 23–April 14
Free admission

Of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights printed across the walls at the entrance of “Human Rights Human Wrongs,” the sixth—“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”—is the most important to curator Mark Sealy.

“I wanted to flip that idea,” he observed during a media preview of the exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre yesterday, “because it’s often framed within a legal framework rather than a visual framework.”

The exhibition, drawn from the Black Star collection of photojournalism images Ryerson acquired in 2005, prompts viewers to consider how images have shaped our reactions towards human rights issues.

There can be no doubt that images do sometimes play that role. While reading a powerful text will move some, striking photos of war victims or protestors reacting in horror as security officials shoot away often strike a deeper nerve. An image allows us to recognize suffering, or the absurdity of those, like Ku Klux Klan supporters, who delight in oppressing others.

Bookending the exhibit are images from two of the 20th century’s worst atrocities: Margaret Bourke-White’s pictures for Life magazine of the Buchenwald concentration camp following its liberation in 1945, and photos of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In between are images of Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested, which contrast with pictures of conflicts in Biafra and Vietnam, portraits of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and photos of demonstrations for the disappeared in Argentina. An accompanying video depicts major speeches concerning civil rights in the Americas, including King’s “I Have a Dream” and Pierre Trudeau’s invitation to “just watch me” during the October Crisis.

A child from the Republic of Biafra (now the Federal Republic of Nigeria). Reproduction from the Black Star Collection at Ryerson University. Courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre. Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli.

Sealy, the director of England’s Autograph ABP, was invited to Toronto in 2010 to build an exhibit around images from the civil rights era. He broadened the scope of the project to include global struggles for human rights and the Universal Declaration written by the United Nations in 1948. “On a day-to-day basis, in very privileged kinds of space, we tend to forget that we own those rights, that they’re ours, and they’re for us to use,” he told us. “Because we own them, we have responsibility for those rights. So how are we encouraging people to use those rights is a really complex question. And I think that question of responsibility is one of the key underlying principles of our new show.”

Among the selections Sealy is proudest of is a large batch of photos taken following a massive Brazilian jailbreak in 1952. The images depict the massive manhunt to round up the prisoners, dead or alive, and they show the lengths authorities went to in order to fingerprint the escapees. Sealy feels these images provide incredible aesthetic pleasure while simultaneously showing the horrors of incarceration.

Running alongside “Human Rights Human Wrongs,” which opens this evening at 7 p.m., are three exhibits which tie into the main show’s themes. Alfredo Jaar’s “The Politics of Images” examines both the weaknesses of coverage of African issues in Western news magazines, and offers a video reflecting on the Rwandan genocide. “Captive State” spotlights Ryerson alumni Dominic Nahr’s photos of the famine in southern Somalia in 2011. Clive Holden’s “Unamerican Unfamous” plays on concepts of fame by drawing upon images of unknown people in the backgrounds of celebrity photographs from the Black Star collection.

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