20 January 2007

Witness: Know War/Know Genocide

A series of exhibitions and programs

"Almost since its invention, the camera has been used to record the more difficult aspects of the human condition: War and its aftermath, genocide and famine. Today’s barrage of images on television, in newspapers, and online remind us that such things persist as much as in the past. This winter, George Eastman House, along with more than 20 community organizations, undertakes a series of exhibitions and public programs on these issues to address the role of photographs in our personal and collective experiences. Join us in exploring how photography and photographs make us all witnesses to world events."

I am ambivalent about this project at the George Eastman House (GEH) - located right here in Rochester. My ambvalence is captured by the passage below from an editorial in City the local "alternative newsweekly." On the one hand, this is an incredibly conservative town both culturally and politically. So the fact that the folks at GEH are even mounting this program means they are sticking their necks out a bit. Right around the block a bit our daring Memorial Art Gallery just spent three months hosting Georgia O'Keefe and a collection of posters from World War I. And the big news at the MAG is that they "acquired" a 16th C Suit of Armor! So Eastman looks positively radical by comparison.

On the other hand, as the City column makes clear, this is not strictly speaking a political program. It takes no stand on the current war. In addition to listing links for a set of humanitarian NGOs, the web site rightly suggests to visitors: "Tell your government representatives your views and concerns about events in Darfur." By contrast, it does not recommend telling your government about the war one way or another. I suspect that Eastman House (as well as the other sponsors in the community) would risk its not-for-profit tax status if it adopted even a non-partisan stance on the war. And I also would be surprised if there are not more than a few donors and members of the Board of Trustees at GEH who consider the "Witness" program politically distressing as it stands. Perhaps one might hope that the program will prompt political reflection and political argument and political action and, thereby, confirm the expectations of those apprehensive donors and trustees.

Here is what City says about the program and their asasesssment seems just right.

"No country should be engaged in war unless its people are willing to look it in the face. And as the new year begins, Rochesterians have a unique opportunity to do that, thanks to the George Eastman House and several other local institutions and organizations.

Our cover story this week focuses on that opportunity: a group of exhibitions, lectures, and other events called "Witness: Know War/Know Genocide." This newspaper is privileged to be the print sponsor, a commitment we made because of the importance of the subject, and because of our respect for the involvement by the Eastman House and other participants.

"Witness" is not a political statement. It is not, for instance, a protest against US involvement in Iraq. The exhibits and events cover much more than this current war: Darfur and Nazi Germany, to name two horrors. But war itself is a political act, and the "Witness" participants may well receive criticism for their involvement. At the least, the Eastman House must worry about audience. The subject is a serious one, to put it mildly, and photos like these are tough to see.

But we hope you'll see them, regardless of your political views and your feelings about this current war. War is killing thousands of people, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Darfur, in Somalia. The least we can do, safe here at home, is to pay witness."

And here is the City cover from this week. Right Again!



Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a descendent of George Eastman and trustee of the George Eastman House I'd like to think Uncle George would have approved of all of this, and that he'd be pleased to see we are using his home to elevate discussions about human rights issues. I am extremely proud that a cultural organization that I am affiliated with is raising public awareness of these issues -- I think it's a real model of how museums need to be moving forward to remain relevant in a changing world.

23 January, 2007 15:06  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks very much for for your comment. I do not know whether your uncle would've approved or not. I hope he would've, but that is not germane here. And as I hopefully made clear in my post I think that the GEH is indeed contributing to discussion in admirable ways ... indeed, I've suggested that my students see the various exhibits and attend the various lectures that comprise the Witness project. I surely will do both myself.

However, while I think pressuring the US government on Darfur is laudible, on the Witness project web pages that recommendation stands in stark contrast to the complete silence regarding the right and obligaiton of visitors to GEH to pressure our government re: the current War in Iraq(one way or the other, I might add).

Darfur is a disaster and the US ought long ago to have asserted leadership to find some multilateral political solutions to the situation. In Darfur, however, the US is not directly involved. In Iraq we are most definitely direct participants and in that sense we citizens perhaps have greater obligation and more reason to pressure our government on the matter. Where is that even mentioned anywhere in the Witness pages?

Perhaps there is a reason for that. I suggested some myself, but you've offered none here. I'd truly and sincerely be interested to know.

Thanks again, JJ

23 January, 2007 21:49  

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