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Human rights is not just something that happens to us, it is something we do.
Human rights is the tool for making change happen, rather than the situation we want to leave or the destination we want to reach—it is something we do every day to make things better. Crucially it is not necessarily something we do when we are in need, but something we can do to be good to each other. This is human rights as a way of behaving and thinking [as humans]. In this narrative, human rights acts as a guide, map or compass we use to find a way forward, for constantly improving how we behave, for treating each other better.
This imagery aims to show that people make change happen. Violations do not just happen, rights do not appear or disappear - human beings make decisions that result in outcomes. Where people make decisions that lead to violations of human rights, there are different decisions they can make that will lead to better outcomes.
The imagery and language of progress highlights how our societies are always in movement, evolving towards more compassion, empathy, putting today’s debates in that context. This gives confidence and momentum to human rights policy calls, framing opposition as anachronistic.
Human rights is a ladder we can use to help each other reach higher: but for someone to climb up another person needs to hold the ladder. Showing people helping each other can also cultivate our trust in each other, encouraging us to put our faith in each other. This also requires accepting a certain vulnerability: we all need to lean on each other for support from time to time. Stories of people helping each other to succeed and thrive are fundamental for narratives that favour policies that realise economic and social rights.
When we take action, we use human rights as a vehicle to move society forward, taking everyone with us on the journey. Use imagery of movement and motion to show that human rights work is not static: it is constantly bringing about cultural shifts and social progress. Use imagery of mobility to make people feel empowered that they have agency to contribute to this change.
We can also use imagery of journeys to remind people how far we have come: putting today’s struggles in the context of a longer journey reminds us that, though we may face setbacks, we are making progress, creating ever more tolerance and solidarity between people. This imagery invites potential supporters to be part of a human rights movement that has the momentum of decades of progress with which to overcome today’s challenges.
If we want people to support change, let’s show them what their life will look like in the future we want to go to—the destination human rights policies are trying to reach. Show people what it looks like to enjoy human rights by celebrating the greatest, most joyful expressions of humanity: in smiling faces, in music and dancing, in art and creativity. To defend universal rights, we can promote a set of universal experiences: joyful moments that celebrate humanity at its best, showing what can be created when human beings enable each other to flourish.
In practice, this is a strategy to show broader audiences that they can also realise greater fulfillment and affirmation in a more just and equal society, rather than just alleviating suffering or granting “entitlements” for a few. Above all, we should note Anat Schenker-Osorio’s advice to communicate the outcome and not just the process - to “make people long for the beautiful tomorrow in order to inspire them to work for its birth”.
Even if we avoid the word “victim” in our messaging, our imagery may still cast people in that disempowering, dehumanising role. Human rights is about living with dignity, so show the people we talk about as protagonists in their own story, whether they are human rights defenders or rights holders. Show them in action, not passive, to express their resilience. Let them articulate their hopes and aspirations too as well as their struggles. In practice this can be people emerging successfully from court, speaking to their community or even just telling their story to someone else.
These visual themes can help us tell stories of people facing hard times with courage and persistence, people as part of wider communities pulling together. This approach must always do justice to the experience of people facing human rights violations, but preserving the admiration, compassion and generosity that are the bedrock of human solidarity.
When using images of protest, try to channel uplift and empowerment rather than confrontation. How we show anger, with dignity and pride, so as to trigger admiration in the audience rather than intimidation. Anger is the spark that ignites the car, hope is the fuel that keeps it moving. Focus on the spark rather than the fire.
Our imagery should help to channel justified outrage towards constructive action. If you show chains, can you also show, metaphorically, how people can break the chains? If we portray the state wielding brute force through the police, can you also show it exercising care and nurture through nurses and teachers?