Photos that have transformed how we view the human rights of people

 The majority of the photos from UNESCO’s 1949 collection might be accused of depicting an untruly peaceful humanity “family” – literally, in this case, by displaying the collage of four families of different cultures that appear to be similar.

Scenes of war

But a counter-narrative of atrocity and what it called “struggle” was introduced through pictures of the war. Images of soldiers washed up on the beach and a pile of bodies on the beach at Buchenwald in a discussion centered on the infringement of human rights. Certain theorists of visuals argue that these images are essential in showing the existence of suffering from afar and injustice. Others have accused them of making the victims more vulnerable and anesthetizing their suffering.

Humanity and dignity

Sometimes, the ability to observe someone completely different from us can trigger the feeling of being close and the awareness of another’s wholeness. For instance, after Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, he became a prominent campaigner within the abolitionist movement in the United States. The man believed strongly in the ability of his regal and serious photograph to defy racist caricatures and was the most photographed man during the 19th century.

The photographer is unknown. Frederick Douglass (c.1841-1845) Full-plate daguerreotype. Onondaga Historical Association.

A new context

Sometimes, photos intended for one use can take on a new meaning as the context of viewing them changes. In 1904, in the last days of the Aceh War, the military doctor H.M. Neeb took a series of infamous photographs that depicted the slaughter of villagers carried out by Dutch KNIL troops at Koeto Reh, where more than 500 people were killed, and 130 of them were children. Dutch rulers then made use of these images to defend the colonial state’s paternalistic role as protector. Today, we see them as shocking proof of imperial atrocities.

H.M.Neeb, Koeto Reh, 14 June 1904. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.

Biscuits as a revolutionary invention

In the following 50 years, in the midst of the revolution in Indonesia between 1945 and 1950, it was considered taboo to depict the slaughter of civilians. Instead, depicting soldiers as humane – for example, handing out biscuits to children in the area was the image of choice.

Collection Bob van Dijk, Soldier distributing biscuits to Indonesian children. BC010, Image bank WW2- NIOD, Amsterdam

The transformation of colonial classification

In Australia, many photos of Aboriginal individuals were taken to serve official reasons to categorize them on a racial basis or record what “progress” children were making in state-owned homes. However, Aboriginal families now use photographs differently. Photo artist Brenda L. Croft uses photography to tell the story of her father, Joseph, removed in the 1920s as a child from his Gurindji/Malgnin/Mudburra people of the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory. After he was reunited physically with his mother, Bessie, in 1974, their reunion was brief. She died just seven months later.

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