WITNESS has worked at the intersection of video and human rights advocacy for over 20 years. In 1988, musician and activist Peter Gabriel traveled with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! Tour. Peter brought along a Sony Handycam, one of the first small camcorders marketed to consumers, to record the stories he heard. While meeting victims and witnesses to human rights violations, he was struck that their stories were being lost, buried, or ignored, and that cameras could serve as an essential tool for capturing the truth.
In 1991, a bystander used a Handycam to capture on videotape the brutal beating of Rodney King, Jr. by Los Angeles police. The footage, broadcast on TV screens around the globe, initiated an international conversation about police brutality and racial discrimination. This public outcry demonstrated the power of video to not only document incidents of abuse, but also to capture the world’s attention.
With the momentum generated by reactions to the King video, Peter was able to realize his visionary idea of putting film at the forefront of human rights campaigns. With a one million dollar seed grant from the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and a partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First), WITNESS was founded in 1992. We became an independent nonprofit organization in 2001.
Since our founding, WITNESS has harnessed the power of video to help activists from Burma to Brazil. We have trained and equipped people to use video to fight for their rights to housing, safety, and equal opportunity. WITNESS videos have helped put a warlord behind bars, pass legislation in the United States to protect elders from abuse, and turn citizens into seasoned journalists whose footage is shown in international media outlets.
Today, there are almost more mobile phones than people in the world. Every day, thousands of citizens and activists risk their lives to capture incidents of protest, brutality, and injustice. Our challenge now is ensure that people are filming safely and effectively, and that their videos make a difference.