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Human Rights Human Wrongs: How striking images can shape the way we view human rights

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The new Human Rights Human Wrongs exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London places iconic news images in context, writes Michelle Adhemar
Issue 2442
Congolese nationalist Ambroise Boimbo grabbing the king of Belgium’s ceremonial sword as he arrives for the country’s independence ceremony in 1960
Congolese nationalist Ambroise Boimbo grabbing the king of Belgium’s ceremonial sword as he arrives for the country’s independence ceremony in 1960 (Pic: Robert Lebeck/The Black Star Collection/Ryerson Image Centre)

The photojournalism in this exhibition is vastly wide ranging. More than 200 images show conflict, war and struggle around the world between 1945 and the early 1990s.

The exhibition seeks to present the photographed events in a global context rather than as isolated incidents. 

You see the Salvadoran Civil War, support for the Hunger Strikers in Northern Ireland, South African Apartheid, riots in Chicago, Martin Luther King being arrested and Che Guevara, among many other images.

The curator Mark Sealy says he  aims to show a different side to the history that has been recorded to “unhinge our so-called definitive moments and set them in a wider, more relative framework”. 

Sealy also includes photographs of Nobel Peace Prize winners. They include Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat and US president Jimmy Carter. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Min—who declined the prize—is also pictured. 

The portraits look out of place and uncomfortable among the harrowing images. Presumably, that is the aim.

The exhibition aims to tell us something about how historical events have been recorded and framed by the Western media. 

Most of these images have been captured by North American or European photographers. There are many iconic photographs here. But the exhibition also includes other shots that were taken at the same time. It shows what else was going on and so what was excluded from the famous image. 


This does show us an alternative view but only in a very limited sense. Where there are no alternative photo­graphs or stories displayed it is difficult to see exactly how the Western media has shaped our understanding of events.

The exhibition is daunting and deeply upsetting. Image after image shows human suffering, pain and anguish. There is often no caption to the photos with minimal notes about what the photo is depicting and no analysis of what led to the event. 

No solution is offered for how we fight the human wrongs depicted. In an interview with the gallery Sealy comments that he “wants people to be politicised” in the space. It is a worthy goal. 

But it’s hard to imagine that by looking at pictures alone a person will become politicised.

The exhibition is ambitious, showing a vast volume of photographs that depict important and forgotten history. 

It is definitely worth a visit but without words and analysis it is a harrowing set of images that can debilitate rather than politicise.

Human Rights Human Wrongs. Photographers Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW. Until 6 April. Admission free.

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