Thinking Tactically about Safety and Ethics for Civic Media Practitioners at Protests

During my time at WITNESS, I have worked with the tools and tactics program to develop how-to practices for filmmakers at protests. This work seemed to develop organically as Occupy Wall Street grew throughout the fall and the issue of police brutality came to the forefront of that movement. These how-to practices not only concern the OWS movement around the world – specifically in New York and Oakland – they are also meant to inform everyone with a camera filming actions, uprisings and military or police brutality. As you might imagine the circumstances surrounding the type of force and legalities greatly differ between places like Egypt and Syria compared to say, Downtown NYC, but here I will address those universal instances.

No matter how you look at it safety and ethics are an important measure in developing how-to practices. For instance, one important tip we include in our upcoming #VideoforChange Guide to Filming Protests  is “[…] if you can’t run with it, don’t bring it”. That tip is ubiquitous in any context and encourages filmmakers to bring monopods rather than unwieldy equipment like tripods to prevent arrest or harm to themselves and their teammates. Whether you’re running from the Syrian Army or Tony Bologna, this tip applies. Another ethical consideration that is omnipresent in filming for human rights is informed consent. It is incredibly important that those appearing in our videos – especially videos distributed online where we lose control and rights – understand our intentions in filming, what the means of distribution is, who will likely see the video and why.  It’s our duty as filmmakers to ensure their safety. The unearthed identities of Syrian activists often lead to atrocity, detention or displacement, and in the US, members of the livestreaming team at OWS have been the targets of arrest at demonstrations because their identities are known (yet they have broken no laws). If we film people we should always determine if their identity needs to be hidden, and the best way to do that is engage in the informed consent process so that they can determine how their identity may or may not be revealed.

As May Day approaches and a resurgence of Occupy related actions is impending, filmmakers will need to freshen their skills for filmmaking at protests, so I think it’s a great time to revisit a tool that our program has worked on throughout last fall and into the winter.

The image to the left (created by Buzzfeed for WITNESS) showcases our top-ten tips for filmmakers at protests that was the precursor to the upcoming how-to video and widely distributed at OWS actions. The image highlights practices in the process of filmmaking with consideration in filmmaking at protests and sharing videos in order to support and protect human rights. You’ll see that these tips engage with the challenges stressed in the executive summary of Camera Everywhere report in a very practical way for activist filmmakers. They address how, in our current human rights media landscape and political climates, we as activist can work collaboratively to ensure the protection of human rights.

It’s worth mentioning the different types of media that these activists might consider producing, which is totally reliant on their goals, audience and specific issue. For instance, a filmmaker in Syria might be documenting atrocities that could appear in a future international court. This is evidentiary video. In filming for evidentiary use we are less concerned about narrative structure and more concerned about forensics. If the filmmaker thinks that he or she will capture something that could one day appear in court, information like time, date and location are paramount. Working in teams to capture multiple angels with teammates appearing in frame in order to verify location are incredibly important. The types of equipment used and the methods of securing that footage to avoid confiscation is important as well and varies depending on the political context.

Others may use protest footage to accompany their advocacy video about a specific issue they want to address. The specific details about time and location are less relevant here and visual details or interviews with people to provide larger context are important. Keep in mind an interview in an evidentiary video could provide context or act as testimony, but the type of interview conducted in an advocacy video will differ, possibly acting as voice over, not addressing the specific who and what happened before or after filming as in evidentiary video. In either case, safety and ethics are again, a major consideration.

What’s really interesting and inspiring to me about work at WITNESS is to see these two co-related uses of video exist in a human rights context that is ever shifting with technology. We see this with recent work mentioned in Christo’s post about ObscuraCam and other WITNESS work thinking about metadata in cell phones and identity protection. I am constantly amazed by the staff at WITNESS who are able to grow with movements, partners and technology over time while filling a niche need for human rights expertise.

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Categories: Reflective Posts

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