New York, New York
Gillian Caldwell, Executive Director
Behind an anonymous, graffiti-pocked door in New York's TriBeCa neighborhood are 3,500 videotapes of some of the worst human-rights transgressions in the world, an archive that expands relentlessly. These are the offices of Witness, human-rights videographer of the world.
Here is the footage that arrived one October morning: A naked boy at Paraguay's National Psychiatric Hospital is squatting against the bars of a 6-by-6-foot cell. Jorge, diagnosed as autistic, has been detained in isolation for at least five years, according to Alison Hillman, a human-rights attorney who shot the footage. Outside Jorge's pen, patients wander unclothed. One man urinates in the courtyard. Another laps up water from a puddle.
Gillian Caldwell, Witness's executive director, is watching the raw footage for the first time. She's also watching me—because ultimately, Witness is all about the reactions it helps provoke. She hopes this tape, like all those Witness sponsors, will spark enough outrage to advance the work of human-rights defenders. As Caldwell puts it, "the camera is both a tool and a weapon" to fight injustice.
Witness was the organization that put a video camera in Hillman's hands in the first place. And now, it's helping her get results. Within days, the video will be edited for submission to the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It will accompany a petition filed by Mental Disability Rights International, where Hillman works, for precautionary measures to protect Jorge and another boy, Julio.
Witness has created more than 150 such partnerships since its founding 12 years ago by the musician Peter Gabriel. The idea came to Gabriel while on a world tour sponsored by Amnesty International. "I met people who had watched members of their family being murdered in front of them and then found that their government was effectively able to deny that those people had ever been murdered," Gabriel says. "There was this sense of powerlessness. I thought if there was strong video footage, it would be so much harder to bury the facts."
Today, Witness faces the challenge of keeping up with demand. Its response: to scale back the number of current partnerships from 25 to 10—but also to "seed" video advocacy via short-term, high-impact training kits for 300-plus organizations. "Ultimately, we can have more impact if we take an open-door approach," says Caldwell. "It's about supporting movements for social change." That is, Witness is committed less to its own survival than to the power of video advocacy—and to a unique vision that Gabriel describes. "I've always dreamt that opposite the UN there would be a house of shame. On one side of the road governments could mouth off [about] their achievements, and on the other side, there would be the history of the realities. I hope that Witness could be the conscience where the reality of human rights and abuse history is preserved, available and accessible to all."
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A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.