A small act of censorship at a Human Rights photography exhibition

The piece of card was about just 8cm by 6cm crudely stuck down with tape but big enough to make quite a mess of the UDHR60 photographic exhibition being hosted by the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC) in Kathmandu, Nepal.

On December 10th the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. As this declaration was signed in Paris in 1948, the Alliance Française took the lead in developing a week long program of film and documentary screenings. The screenings were supported by a photographic exhibition created by the renowned VII Network, a photographic agency which comprises some of the worlds best contemporary photo journalists.

To quote the VII website:

“A total of 30 photos were chosen that best represent the 30 articles, or principles, contained in the Declaration of Human Rights. The images come from the VII and VII Network photographers – photographers who risk their lives on an almost daily basis to bear witness to the world’s injustices and to document human rights abuses. That fight will continue.”

And the photographs are as tragic as they are excellent. Disappointingly, in complete contradiction to the spirit of the event and the content of declaration itself, the RCC, using this small piece of card and tape, carried out an act censorship.

The photo in question was taken in 2000 by Eric Bouvet to represent Article 9: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” The picture was captioned (in French) with: “A young Chechen female is imprisoned in the Russian Chernokozovo detention centre in the suburbs of Grozny, Chechnya in 2000.” Presumably feeling that this might show Russia in a bad light, the caption was censored by covering it up.

Article 19 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Hopefully this too should apply to Eric Bouvet?

According to a source at the Alliance Française, it was indeed felt by the Russian Cultural Centre that this picture might single out Russia negatively and that “there are no pictures of Guantanamo bay” for instance. Alliance Française offered to remove the picture completely from the exhibition but this was rejected in favour of covering up the caption.

On Friday at 2pm the picture was removed completely. At 4pm, as the exhibition was being packed away, it had been returned with caption intact.

Dr Vladimir Novikov the Russian Cultural Centre’s amiable director said it was “a question of balance.” He would have been happier if only one picture had been used per country and in the exhibition, Chechnya was featured twice. According to him it was the Alliance Française who covered the caption. According to Alliance Française, it was the RCS that requested that to be done (though this is not about appointing blame).

Many countries are depicted in the exhibition and a few are shown in a bad light, namely: Burma, Brazil, China, USA on tour in Iraq (3 pictures) and also this country, Nepal (a picture of a 15 year old crying as her wedding procession leads her to her new husband’s home in Kagati Village).

The argument that the picture singles out Russia is a poor one. But still it is completely missing the point.

There are few countries in the world with a clean human rights record. The object of the exhibition is not about specific finger pointing. It is to remind us that we, the ‘human family’ as the French government aniversary website describes us, have a long way to go, that we need to re-read and keep these declarations in mind at all times and, most importantly, that we need to challenge contraventions, however small, wherever we find them.

The irony is that the presence of this captioned photograph in the exhibition didn’t reflect any more badly on Russia than the many other countries depicted or we the ‘human family’ in general. The fact that the RCC engaged in this small act of censorship, at such an exhibition, really does.


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