Human Rights Watch: Driving Change, Visually

Published on 10.14.14
Filed in Industry

Emma Daly Emma Daly has worked for Human Rights Watch since 2005, most recently as communications director. Before joining HRW, she was a foreign correspondent, writing for The New York Times, The Independent, Newsweek, The Observer and Reuters, among others. A native of the United Kingdom, Daly holds a BA in Philosophy and Literature from the University of East Anglia. She is married to Santiago Lyon, director of photography for The Associated Press.

Pierre Bairin Multimedia Director Pierre Bairin oversees Human Rights Watch's growing multimedia department, producing photo, video and audio features. Before joining HRW in 2011, he worked nearly 20 years for CNN as an editor and field producer, covering conflicts and breaking news around the world. Bairin, who is Belgian, graduated from the University of Brussels with an MA in Journalism and Communication.

The boy is barely into his teens. Gazing at the camera with large, sad eyes, he speaks without emotion about going deep into the East African earth to mine gold. He remembers the day the pit collapsed on him. Subtitles translate: “I fell down and was knocked unconscious. My friends dug me out of the rubble and took me to the hospital. I remained unconscious until 4 a.m.”

This video on the dangers of child labor, just five minutes long, was shot last year in a small village in Tanzania. It has understated gravity, and given the imprint of a global organization, the power to deliver its message worldwide. Enter the new era of nonprofit communications.

By its very name, Human Rights Watch embraces the need to bear witness. The group has called attention to the miserable things human beings do to each other for nearly 40 years. Today it injects a fresh urgency into its mission by blending advocacy with a bracing splash of multimedia journalism.

“When I came here, what I wanted to do is really not to have the multimedia as the cherry on the cake, but part of the cake itself,” said Pierre Bairin, HRW’s director of multimedia. “It’s not just illustration. It’s not an extra. It’s really part of how we communicate now. It’s part of how we show the abuses are taking place, and not just from an advocacy point of view. Obviously, social media and the traditional media are offering multimedia now. It’s not an option. We have to have it.”

Bairin’s observation sounds almost banal two decades into the Internet age. Yet many news and advocacy organizations still struggle with implementing multimedia. Amid this turmoil, Human Rights Watch stands as a success. Its staff realized that its investigations, largely delivered through lengthy text reports and a few still photos, would be swamped by today’s digital tsunami.

HRW now puts out 50 to 60 videos a year through its own website and its YouTube channel. In the process, it is hosting new showcases for such accomplished photographers as Marcus Bleasdale, Ed Kashi, Arantxa Cedillo, Brent Stirton, Justin Purefoy (who shot the video in Tanzania), Francisco Fagan, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Platon.


The interactive feature "Torn Apart" by Human Rights Watch highlights U.S. immigration issues and features photographs by Platon alongside short videos and text.

Human Rights Watch, based in New York, employs international experts, lawyers, advocates and journalists. Its researchers have gone to more than 60 countries to collect evidence of human rights abuses, and HRW publishes dozens of reports annually with the goal of changing minds, rectifying policies and putting an end to outrages. What they have learned not to do, said Emma Daly, communications director, is merely make a video of an HRW report.

“What makes our reports strong or convincing is that we have 100 people tell us the same stories that happened 100 different ways in 100 different places,” Daly explained. “But that’s the antithesis of a video, where you need just one or two strong characters telling their story. We’ve had to learn how to do a video version that will probably only focus on one aspect of the report.”

Traditional videos tend to have the idea of ‘Look at this poor situation, look how great we’re doing this.’ We knew we needed our videos to be much more like telling a story.

Daly was a longtime foreign correspondent with bylines in The New York Times and other prestigious publications when she joined HRW in 2005. From her experience as a reporter—and from her marriage to Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography at The Associated Press—she knew photography had to be integral to her work. HRW’s leadership had already set sights on a vibrant multimedia presence. “My boss, Carroll Bogert, came out of the magazine world, at Newsweek, and she understood the need to bring images into the world,” Daly said. “I remember when she interviewed me, she asked: ‘What should we be doing? How should we be doing it?’ ”

The answer would be visual. Human Rights Watch produces “long, detailed reports that are meant to be persuasive in a factual way,” Daly said. The reports are meticulously checked for accuracy, but “what they sometimes miss is the heart and the emotion of this human experience that we’re documenting. The best way to do that was with images.”

"US: DC Police Fail Rape Victims" was produced by Carol Cassidy and Jessie Graham with videography by Mariam Dwedar. As a result of HRW work on this issue, the D.C. police chief ordered a review of procedures.

HRW’s image-makers aren’t novices, Daly emphasized. “We really thought a lot about ensuring that the visual work was of the same high quality as our written reports,” she said. When the time came to find photographers, “we made sure we worked with people who had the reputation, whose work you trusted, people who were well known in the field and whose credibility was unquestioned. That was important—to establish that we were taking photography as seriously as the other reporting.”

Tim Hetherington Grant

Human Rights Watch and World Press Photo established an annual visual journalism grant focusing on human rights in honor of Tim Hetherington, who was killed in April 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya. The 20,000 euro grant is open to professional photographers and filmmakers.

An early project involved a researcher going into Chad with renowned photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed in 2011 covering the civil war in Libya. HRW has memorialized Hetherington with an annual grant supporting visual journalism with a human rights focus.

Bairin, the multimedia director, came aboard in 2011 after more than 20 years as a television field producer, mainly with CNN; for a few years, he was CNN’s bureau chief in Baghdad. “I’d become frustrated with the showbiz aspect of news,” he said. “Priorities were changing, the technology changed, you were live all the time. I had known about Human Rights Watch for many years. I had met many of their researchers in the field, and I was always quite impressed at how thoroughly they knew the story, how they tracked the intricacies of a story.”

When Bairin arrived, he said, HRW’s multimedia had “more of a traditional style with music, text on the screen, less like news.” His goal is to produce projects with the crackling immediacy of journalism and the authority of Human Rights Watch advocacy. “Traditional videos tend to have the idea of ‘Look at this poor situation, look how great we’re doing this.’ We knew we needed our videos to be much more like telling a story.”

We have a duty of care to the people we’re interviewing. We can’t retraumatize them. We have to be careful about how we treat them.

He particularly liked a video about police in the District of Columbia effectively ignoring rape victims. “That’s how we’re different from a news outlet,” Bairin said. “A news outlet might have done more with the condition of the victim—well, she was drunk. To us, that’s not the point. The point is the woman was raped and when she went to the police, the police didn’t investigate. That’s a story that worked.” (The D.C. police chief ultimately ordered a review of procedures.)

While photographers sometimes bring stories to HRW, Daly said videos more often begin after a researcher has investigated a human rights abuse. When the researcher is preparing to return to the scene, Bairin finds a photographer, frequently one already in the country. The shooter must be willing to follow the researcher’s lead.

“How you behave in the field, how you interact with our team, that is vital,” Daly said. “You can be the best visual journalist in the world, but if we don’t think you’re going to listen when the researcher tells you to stop shooting, we’re not going to hire you. We have a duty of care to the people we’re interviewing. We can’t retraumatize them. We have to be careful about how we treat them.”


Human Rights Watch worked with photographer Brent Stirton/Getty Images on the multimedia project: "Gold's Costly Dividend: The Porgera Joint Venture."

Human Rights Watch pays photographers between $300 and $1,000 a day, depending on the country and nature of the assignment. After HRW makes an edit for its use, the photographer is free to sell photos or video elsewhere.

Once production is completed, Bairin said, “it’s very important to make sure [a project] is launched properly, to make sure it comes out with a press release that contains new information, so people will be interested in it. It can’t just appear on the website. … There has to be a social media campaign around it, get it tweeted, get it on Facebook.”

Bairin said photographer Ed Kashi is working on a project in Mexico; part of Kashi’s appeal is his more than 12,000 followers on Twitter. As an experiment, HRW teamed up with Kashi to organize a Kickstarter project to help pay for the story. Bairin said the $25,000 goal was ultimately met, “but it was a bit nerve-wracking, and I don’t think we’ll do it again.”

Photographer Marcus Bleasdale has been shooting for Human Rights Watch since 2003, primarily on stories in Africa about “conflict minerals” mined and sold to finance wars. He travels with two Canon 5D Mark III cameras, one for video, one for stills, and “various different bits of sound equipment, but the goal is to be reasonably light and mobile.”

Bleasdale doesn’t work as a news photographer; “I document issues that concern me,” he said. To him, the appeal of the HRW work is its real impact. “Recently the company that was illegally buying the gold and fueling the conflict in Congo ceased buying the gold, and $100 million dried up overnight. … The power of the (Human Rights Watch) report and the power of the researcher’s efforts in country and the collaboration of the photos and text made it possible.”

"North Korea: Accounts from Camp Survivors" was directed by Bradley Cox and features drawings by Kim Hye Sook.

Other Human Rights Watch multimedia projects have shifted the ground. A video about attacks on gay men in Russia, put up on YouTube before the Sochi Olympics, went viral—about a million views within 24 hours, Bairin said. Another, about gold miners in Nigeria digging in lead-contaminated soil, prodded the government to finance a cleanup. In Kenya, water from a lead smelter was seeping through a village; after HRW’s video was released, the government came in with remedies.

With each new project, Human Rights Watch demonstrates that multimedia featuring real human beings—bearing witness as only great visual journalism can—will create pressure for change. In doing so, HRW brings opportunity for photographers and videographers who have earned their chops: a shot at global impact, both for their images and in their social networks.

“When you see people around the world having this sort of dedication and courage,” Daly said, “we can take that and amplify that, bring it to a much wider platform. … That’s when we can really have an impact, when seeing it for yourself can really make a difference.”

Anne Saker is a staff writer at The Cincinnati Enquirer.


Written by: Anne Saker Cover photo: A 16-year-old worker harvests tobacco on a farm in Kentucky. Credit: Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch



Sorry, this version of your browser isn't supported right now takes advantage of certain features that are not supported by your browser. For the best possible experience, we recommend upgrading to the very latest version of Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Apple Safari.