Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, June, 1992. Photo: Susan Meisalas/Magnum Photos
Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, June, 1992. Photo: Susan Meisalas

Human rights organizations often depend on the media’s megaphone, calling malefactors to account by publicizing their misdeeds. So it’s something of a paradox that Berkeley’s most influential and visionary NGO dedicated to the international struggle for human rights, the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, tends to operate under the radar. In marking the center’s 20th anniversary, the HRC is presenting an alternately breathtaking and hair-raising photo exhibition, Envisioning Human Rights, part of a new effort to raise public awareness about the organization’s vital work.

Acholi boy with toy gun, Muchwini Internally Displaced Camp, Uganda. Photo: Thomas Morley
Acholi boy with toy gun, Muchwini Internally Displaced Camp, Uganda. Photo: Thomas Morley

Opening Thursday Aug. 28 with a reception in Boalt Hall’s Steinhart Courtyard and running through October, the exhibition features the work of 10 remarkable photographers, including Gilles Peress, Susan Meiselas, Sebastião Salgado, Ken Light, Mimi Chakarova, and Jean-Marie Simon (several of whom will be present at the reception). The center itself is located off campus at Telegraph and Oregon, but the exhibition fills a gallery space in the lobby of the old Law Library on the second floor of Boalt Hall, appropriately adjacent to four extremely disquieting canvases in Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib series. While it’s intended to introduce the center’s work to the community, the exhibition is also raising the HRC’s profile within Boalt itself.

“I run around the law school all the time and meet people who aren’t aware we’re here,” says Alexa Koenig, who took over as executive director of the HRC in 2012 from Camille Crittenden. The center’s founder Eric Stover serves as faculty director and adjunct professor of Law and Public Health. “We partner with groups like Human Rights Watch, but don’t have the kind of platform. We tend to be so focused on the work and service we’re not thinking about outreach. The 20th anniversary celebration is our chance to acknowledge that there have been dozens of students and faculty involved with our work.”

As an interdisciplinary program, the HRC is associated with Boalt without being closely integrated into the law school. Most of the center’s funding comes from outside donors, and part of the plan for the exhibition is to auction off the donated photos with the proceeds supporting essential initiatives, particularly HRC Fellowships for students interested in contributing their time and expertise to human rights organizations across the globe.

“We have an amazing opportunity to be affiliated with the campus, but we function as an independent NGO of sorts,” Koenig says. “We’re very boots on the ground, yet when we’re facing an issue we need to address we benefit from the expertise available at Cal, and can bring in the best doctoral students and fold them into the work. They benefit by getting a real-world application for their research.”

Maia, Moldova. Photo: Mimi Chakarova
Maia, Moldova. Photo: Mimi Chakarova

Dedicated to, as the HRC’s motto says, “pursuing justice through science and law,” the center uses evidence-based methods and technologies to hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes and violators of international humanitarian law. The organization also trains students to document human rights violations while serving as advocates for vulnerable populations.

Whether fighting sexual violence in conflict zones or seeking to reunite Salvadoran families ripped apart by the brutal civil war that raged from 1980-92, when the military abducted children from families caught in the center of the conflict, the HRC seeks to address the long-term fallout of war and violence.

Many of the photographers featured in the exhibition have been involved in HRC projects over the years. In a walk-through with the exhibition’s curator Pamela Blotner, she explained that she selected the work of artists who step beyond capturing an image. “We view these works as fine art. They provide a history, a depth and resonance that goes beyond the news headlines.”

Forced separation, Sarajevo. Photo: Gilles Peress
Forced separation, Sarajevo. Photo: Gilles Peress

The images are striking. Rather than focusing on visceral brutality, the exhibition relies far more on the shadow of violence looming outside the frame, or the coercion implicit in the context, like Jean-Marie Simon’s 1987 image from Guatemala, which captures a Mayan procession in Quiché surrounded by soldiers. The range of human rights issues addressed spans the globe, from Mimi Chakarova’s work exploring the trafficking of Eastern European women for sex, to Stephen Ferry’s photos documenting the plight of child laborers in Bolivia, to Ken Light’s work in the American South, and Thomas Morley’s work in east Africa.

“Envisioning Human Rights” is at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law from Aug. 29. Pre-sale of the photographs will be offered at the opening reception on Aug. 28. A silent online auction of photos will open on Oct. 13. For details, visit the exhibition’s website.

A companion show, Envisioning Human Rights: The Next Generation, runs at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive through Sept. 21. A juried exhibition of artwork by UC students, the show includes paintings, photographs, and prints exploring human rights issues by young artist/activists from across the UC system. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum is presenting several Botero Abu Ghraib paintings that the artist donated to BAM/PFA in recognition of Berkeley’s historic role in the arena of human rights.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....