Images for Human Rights
By Paul Morris
January 14, 2009 » “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” proclaims the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, first adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948. “They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The 60th anniversary of the declaration was celebrated in December with the U.S. debut of a 25-poster exhibition, “Images for Human Rights: Student Voices,” in the Great Hall of Pasadena’s elegant and spacious Central Library. First appearing at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in September, the exhibition displayed 25 posters designed by 16 students from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. The posters were the result of a multidisciplinary studio presented by Designmatters and sponsored by the France Los Angeles Exchange (FLAX). Designmatters, the Art Center’s social and humanitarian program, is the first design school in America to apply and receive NGO status, in recognition of its efforts in using the visual arts to solve real-world problems. The school has sponsored film documentaries, digital storytelling projects, and product designs (such as a portable, hand-held DNA diagnostic tool).
The result is simple and powerful imagery: The shadow of a little girl extends from the feet of a figure invisible save for an outfit of thigh-high boots, panties, and bra. “We found the subject of child prostitution so appalling that we couldn’t ignore it,” remark the poster’s creators, students Bennett McCall, Brian Scott, and Heather East. There is subconscious imagery as well: The use of black and blue, as Brian Scott explained, evoke child prostitution’s physical and psychological bruising. The colors are cool and desaturated—seemingly the opposite of the white T-shirt neatly displayed on a poster by Cindy Chen. The effect is similar, however, once you take a look at the label, which reads, “100% Sweatshop Labor. Bad Conditions, Ages 4 and Up, Abducted, Lack of Education, Psychological Harm, Forced to Work, Long Hours, Little/No Pay…”
Another poster, in imitation of a perfume ad, condemns the acid-throwing attacks against women that have increased in countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh, and India. A bottle of acid, complete with atomizer, lies amid a dark Dior-like space; the tagline reads, “Available in stores near you, for use against women everywhere.”
Christopher Kosek’s poster (left) demonstrates the dangers of landmines. Cindy Chen’s design (right) reminds us of a human rights violation within our own borders: the problem of homelessness.
Each student was free to choose whatever article in the Declaration they most connected with. Martha Rich, a faculty member in the Art Center’s Illustration Department, compares it to planting a seed—a small act that leads to dialogue, which in turn leads to awareness, which in turns can lead to change. “The students found something to connect with personally and took a hands-on approach to the poster,” she says. Sharon Levy fashioned a toy doll called Sweatshop Sally that is packaged with real-life accessories: a rusty sewing machine, a food allotment of one bowl of rice a day, and six cents—Sweatshop Sally’s sub-minimum wage.
Christopher Kosek, whose mother grew up in Communist Poland in fear of the Secret Police, created several of the exhibition’s posters. Kosek said graphic design needs to be a vehicle of public service to increase awareness for issues such as the military use of children. One of his posters, entitled “A Child Is Not a Soldier,” depicts a child soldier as drawn by a child’s hand. Kosek said that children draw whatever surrounds them, perhaps unaware of their own traumas. Two of Kosek’s posters, “Somebody” and “Everybody,” feature medical illustrations and neutral typefaces. The message is that “we’re all made up of the same stuff,” going back to that self-evident Article 1 of the Declaration. Kosek’s use of warm colors (yellow, pink, red) nevertheless stirs up a message of hope and progress.
Despite the tragedies that it represents, played out over and over again across the world, “Images for Human Rights: Student Voices” carries a message of hope and progress here. Erica Clark, the Art Center’s Senior Vice President and co-founder of Designmatters, pointed out that students are increasingly seeing the possibility of working as graphic designers in the field of public information, and in UN and photographic agencies focusing on rights issues, as well as organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.
Clark remembered being deeply moved as a young girl by the photographic exhibition “The Family of Man,” first held in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The Family of Man” touched on the hopeful aspects of human life as well as the tragic. Now, more than five decades later, Designmatters celebrates the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while at the same time condemning the fact that these principles are not universally respected or followed.