Engaging, not Exoticizing Human Rights

As far as bridge blogs go, English Russia is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Founded in August 2006, the site describes itself as “the Eastern Entertainment Channel.” (The 300-plus comments on its about page offer a pretty good introduction to what seem to be the most recurrent discussions in the Russian-language blogosphere.) The blog has around 20,000 subscribers. When you add the number of daily page views from Google search results and from links around the web, English Russia probably has around the same daily circulation as a mid-sized American newspaper.

Two or three posts are published each day which poke fun at life in the former Soviet Union. They are mostly photographs, with a few captions of less-than-perfect English to give some context. Yesterday a post about drug addicts living in St. Petersburg included some photographs that looked familiar. The post was tagged “Funny, Photos, Russian, People Children, Drugs, Junkies.”

One foreign lady photographer went down to the bottom of society of St. Petersburg Russia, where she has met children, junkies, prostitutes or often all together in one and made all those photos. Sniffing poisonous glues inducing hallucinations seems to be one of the main fun for those kids.

The foreign lady photographer happens to be Lorena Ros, a well known Spanish human rights photojournalist living in Brooklyn. She was funded by Open Society Institute – the same program that funds our health-related work at Rising Voices – to fly to St. Petersburg, spend some time with drug addicts, and photograph them. It is precisely the type of human rights campaign project that I was criticizing earlier this year at a conference in Berkeley.

The photographs are compelling; there is no doubt about that. Just like all the ruin porn that came out of Detroit this year, they show the beauty of destruction; in this case, people destroying their own lives. But what does this type of photography actually achieve? What ends up changing in the lives of those who are photographed?

I would argue that two things happen. First, human rights organizations in Manhattan and Washington D.C. have nice photographs to hang in their hallways and shock visitors with explicit high definition exotica of all the terrible things in the world. If the organizations are lucky the photos might pull at the heart-strings of wealthy visitors who pull out their checkbooks.

The second thing that happens is that the local residents of cities where these drug addicts actually live grow resentful with wealthy funders who send over professional photographers to highlight what the embarrassed residents feel are the worst aspects of their society. The photographs don’t convince them to get involved in addressing the actual problem; they just grow angry with how the image of their community is portrayed. It becomes a debate about branding, not about the shared goals toward social progress.

Yesterday afternoon I had coffee with a drug addict. It was the most natural thing in the world. We each ordered espresso, we talked about the benefits and the frustrations of technology, the potential and pitfalls of blogging … you know, the normal stuff we all banter on about these days. We also made a little movie:

I would never have met Pavel, and never have come to care about his life, were it not for his blog. It requires that you invest some time, empathy, and understanding. But if you do, you will actually come to understand more about his life and his motivations. Reading Pavel’s blog requires more work than looking at a framed photograph of someone pushing a syringe into her skin under perfect lighting. But, unlike the photograph, Pavel offers some concrete suggestions on how to integrate drug addicts into society and lessen the health risks associated with injection drug use.

You can learn more about Pavel Kutsev and read English translations of his blog posts on Rising Voices.


  1. Dear David Thanks for this laudable video input and very well focused and we’ve expanded the information.
    Bst regards and big hug from Medellín!

  2. I agree that there are bad examples of documentary photography being used in social activism. Whether the work of Lorean Ros you mention fits into bad practice, both ethically and strategically I cannot say as I don’t have the necessary information to fairly judge. From my experience over the last year there is a need for photographers and human rights organisations to work more closely in integrating photography into their projects. This entails more than just ‘graphic & compelling’ images to draw the eye and heart. It needs deeper strategic communication thinking about what you are trying to achieve and how images play a role in this. It also means looking at representation – the power relation between the subject, photographer and viewer. This is where participatory or community media initiatives can work well in combining with professional work. You can read more about my views on participatory photography on my blog in the article ‘Jack of all trades, master of none?’ The history of documentary photography is littered with examples of exploitative work that seeks out the vulnerable for all the wrong reasons. However, the Open Society Institute has funded some very good pieces of work that use photography in integrated campaigns. One example is the recent work by Ed Kashi on the oil industry in the Niger Delta – ‘Curse of the Black Gold’. In the end photos are just one of many communication tools, and for some reason come under far more criticism (and have far more expectations attached to them) than they really deserve. Their greatest strength is not to purely witness but to bridge an empathetic gap that exists between the viewer and subject – when done successfully this can mobilise people for change who would normally be apathetic to an ‘Others’ plight.


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