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Verging on the voyeuristic

John Green takes issue with a photographic record of colonialism and imperialism

Human Rights, Human Wrongs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1

3/5

Human Rights, Human Wrongs, with more than 200 press prints drawn from the prestigious Black Star collection of 20th-century photo-reportage, is a whirlwind tour through the post-war history of colonialism and imperialism.

According to its curator Mark Sealy, its guiding principle is Article Six of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, in mounting this exhibition, he seeks to question what the human right to recognition actually means and to make audiences consider how the recognition of such rights is generated and controlled, particularly in terms of image production and circulation.

The images on display are culled from news reportage — snapshots taken for the specific purpose of documenting events for the print media — and they are not, in the first instance, aesthetic or artistic statements.

The early post-war colonial struggles in north Africa under French rule, Kenya under the British and the wars in Vietnam and Northern Ireland, along with the freedom struggles in Mozambique and Nicaragua, are only a few of the events and places depicted.

Sealy’s intentions are laudable but what’s on display hardly serves to enlighten. There are too many photographs in relatively small formats arranged in tight rows on each wall with tiny captions, often only a few feet from the ground.

While most convey the brutality and violence of imperialist oppression, they lose impact through their sheer overabundance. Others of political personalities, out of their historical context, appear to have little justification for being on display.

What might work better in a book, where particular images can be lingered over and returned to, comes across here as simply a huge collage.

There is virtually no context, with often only short, bland captions and the photographer’s name, if known. An image of an indigenous Nicaraguan guerilla fighting with the Contras, of Vietnamese torturing other Vietnamese, or a Japanese soldier executing a Chinese citizen are meaningless without any kind of background information.

That’s absolutely essential if these powerful images are to have much meaning at all.

Thus for those who haven’t lived though this history or who have no in-depth knowledge of it, these photos have little other impact than the voyeuristic.

Even so, it’s an exhibition worth seeing, if only as an apposite reminder of the horrendous cost of imperialism in all its forms.

Runs until April 6. Free, opening times: thephotographersgallery.org.uk

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