August 27, 2005 19:30 | Culture

Documenting human rights abuses

(I can't find the info or name of this conference... Michael what was the name again?)
Earlier this week, I ran over to Concordia University to listen to some presentations grouped under the title (gaaaaahhh something about genocide and media/documenttion).

Off the bat, I was very unimpressed to find that the presentations consisted solely of the presenters reading their papers. Nothing glosses my eyes over than a lecture. Anyways.

The first presentation was something about archives of Holocaust related media. The second was about pornographic re-interprattions of Holocaust media. Whahunh? The presenter was a homey looking young woman from I think Edmonton who used the words "fuck" and "shit" without flinching. That in itself was impressive.

From there we went to Africa with a thoughtful paper on, I think, the re-contextualization of photographs from Somalia by a certain photographer. Sadly, the projector stopped cooperating and I only remember seeing two photos.

Can you tell my attention was non-existent? I actually started playing with a reBlog beta Michal had sent me...

The last presentation, thankfully, picked up a little as the presenter was at least inflecting her tone as she read her paper. No joke, this helped alot. Her paper was about the first case to have been called a "crime against humanity", perpetrated in the Congo in the early 1900's. She examined the effect pictures of child mutilations - children who would have hands and feet amputated - had on bringing an end to the abuses. (I should have taken notes on this one ... doh.)

The whole thing was replete with lines like "and so Lacan tells us...". Ugh. After a few self-congratulatory comments from the audience (you call that a question?!!?), I was ready to go postal. I decided instead to fight my urge to scream and raised my hand...

(paraphrasing myself with buzzwords! hah!)
"Say I am in a position where I am going to be building a web-based system for the collection of grass-roots media documentation of real-world, happening-now human rights abuses. In some cases the photos, videos, texts, audio objects will come from designated "reporters" and in others by ordinary people contributing whatever they can. What, in your esteem, is the most important thing I need to keep in mind when designing and building this system?"

All eyes on me, you could hear a pin drop.

I am SO glad I asked the question because it knocked loose some very good feedback, albeit from a group of people who seem to have missed the point of this little thing called "the Intarweb".

"You must preserve context!"
"You must prevent re-approriation, especially to stem off mis-representation!"

I almost went postal again, but instead took a deep breath and didn't bother shouting "Information wants to be free!!!"

Reality is what you say it is.


Hi Boris,

I would love to know more about this project.

It will surely come in handy in my studies.


thx Michael.
Phil, it was hypothetical (though based on something Michael and I had pitched...)


keeping the context, is in part keeping the references and the links. The Semantic Web has a similar issue, when you query a knowledge base where do you stop to explore the graph.

You can't download the whole internet, then it means you have to define what do you want to request and what do you want to get of this.

There are at least two contexts, in fact.

The context of the one who has created, delivered the media (I do not say information).
The context of the one who is grabbing the media.

The information is created by the journey of the media from someone to someone else with more or less framework (conflicting or not) around it.

“Preserving a context” is then often preserving the view of the creator on this information. I would go a little bit further by saying that the creator would like to impose a view: social, politics, philosophical, moralistic, etc. The same old question, we had at another level on the Web with the layout of Web sites (remember pixel precision).

We are afraid to not be understood, we are afraid of contradictions, we are afraid of arguments, then we want to impose the shape of our content.

The thoughts about context seem still reasonnable. We want for example to give context to a child in his journey discovering content, because we want help him to discover content with full abilities to not be lost. Though to be completely honest, we want at the same time to impose a kind of moralistic framework for this child. Nothing wrong with that, it's called education. We all do that.

To come back to your initial question. Preserving the context is maybe, preserving as much as possible metadata about the information from the creator and see how does it match the metadata information of the one who receives it.

Hi Boris,

I tried to post a comment but it wouldn't accept it here. I put it on my site instead - hope you take it as a constructive comment - that's how it's meant.