Can I Get a Witness? Images That Effect a Positive Change

By Adrian Belic

In 1988, Amnesty International organized a concert tour to mark the 40th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the musicians, Peter Gabriel, happened to have brought a new technological marvel with him on tour. He was using a personal video camera to record his experiences.

"It was on that tour that he met isolated human rights defenders and began thinking of how they could use video to bridge that gap and bring their causes to a wider audience," recalls Gillian Caldwell, executive director of Witness.

A few years later, America was riveted by a few minutes of grainy and shaky footage flashed across our collective TV screens. The 1991 images of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King created a massive public outcry for justice.

Gabriel, too, was moved by the power of those images and, together with the Reebok Foundation and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, co-founded Witness in New York City to harness the power of video to chronicle, expose and educate the public about human rights abuses around the world and in the US.

"Witness is an organization that provides video cameras, technical and tactical guidance to human rights organizations and helps them use video to foster positive change," Caldwell explains. "We take people through the whole process from start to finish, production, post, distribution and advocacy—especially advocacy, which I think is very important. This allows our partners support and a platform from which they can articulate their perspective."

Currently Witness works with over 150 organization partners in 50 countries around the world and has a full production facility at its headquarters in New York City. It gives day-long video and advocacy seminars to organizations that come through New York. And since many remote organizations are unable to come, Witness goes to them.

 "We go out into the field with cameras and editing equipment for up to ten days and train people on the equipment and then leave it for them to use," Caldwell elaborates. "We help the organizations develop video objectives, a video action plan, and we work on their message as well as shooting schedule and distribution strategy.

"We have grown from a single staff person to 11 now," she continues. "Our growth rate is nearly unsustainable."

That has not stopped Witness from expanding its services. Along with the focus on providing equipment and training, the organization also maintains an archive of approximately 1,000 hours of footage shot by partner organizations around the world. "The archival material is jointly owned by Witness and our partners and is available to documentary filmmakers and news agencies on a sliding scale," Caldwell explains. "We help broker deals between our partners and media outlets so that our partners are properly compensated and credited for their work and footage. We also look for filmmakers who have shot documentaries or news stories and have footage left over that could be used in other productions for our archive. Most successful campaigns involve multiple uses, multiple venues and multiple outlets for the video, so we think tactically of how best to use the footage for maximum impact." Witness footage has been seen on virtually every major TV news outlet in the world, and the organization's documentaries have screened at film festivals, museums, rallies, schools, universities and libraries around the world.

"Targeted screenings in front of decision-makers is the single most effective way to address a problem," Caldwell maintains. "Broader public audiences are also effective to shame or push a government to action." Witness and its partner organizations have, for example, helped force the reform of psychiatric hospitals in Mexico and compelled the Philippine government to pass laws protecting indigenous people. Witness documentaries have been screened at the United Nations and have helped foster the passage of laws in the UN and the US Congress to protect women worldwide who are forced into prostitution. In California, the Witness documentary Books Not Bars helped to force the rethinking of a planned maximum-security prison for adolescent criminals.

Though stretched to the limit, the Witness staff is embarking on two bold new projects.

"We continue to innovate," Caldwell says. "Our new book Video for Change is a complement to our training video of the same name based on the organization's ten years of experience. There is still a lot of work to be done. It will be a comprehensive training manual and guide to video advocacy." Video for Change is due out in winter 2004 or early 2005.

Witness is also in the early stages of putting together a bold global organization of film and video professionals. "We are cultivating a consortium of filmmakers, script writers, editors and others to tap their expertise in order to help our partner human rights organizations," Caldwell explains. "We are creating a community of professionals compelled by our work but for financial or scheduling reasons cannot commit long periods of time, yet still want to help. We want to use them as roving faculty and help place them in workshops to train members of our partner organizations when they have breaks in their schedule." The working title for the group is The Pod.

The work seems never-ending. Caldwell recently returned from Sierra Leone, the war-torn West African nation, where Witness is working with local human rights organizations to make a documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is attempting to heal the scars of war.

Beyond the volume of cameras and editing equipment handed out by Witness and the training sessions given around the world, Caldwell says, "The most important way we evaluate our success is whether there a substantive change brought about by our work."

You can learn more about Witness and view their documentaries on line at


Adrian Belic is currently in post-production on Knightsbridge (working title), a feature documentary shot in Afghanistan and Asia about three Americans who travel to the world's war zones delivering life-saving humanitarian aid (