‘Envisioning Human Rights’ frames resilience of ‘societies under siege’

Eric Stover

Eric Stover, HRC’s faculty director, describes the human drama of the Bosnian civil war, as captured by Gilles Peress in “Forced Separation, Sarajevo.”

Eric Stover, pressed into short-term service as a museum docent, paused at a poignant image of hands reaching out from either side of a bus window. The picture was taken by Gilles Peress in 1993, during the early days of the Bosnian civil war, a humanitarian crisis with which Stover — who, in his regular role as faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, has worked with Peress for decades — is all too familiar.

“The Serbs had positioned themselves across the river and were sniping into the town all the time,” Stover told a clutch of onlookers in the Berkeley Law gallery. “The bus station was fortunately located behind some tall buildings. But people were desperate to leave.” The greatest danger from snipers, he said, came during the time it took to come and go from the shelter of those buildings.

“So what’s happening here is two-way,” he explained. “They’re worrying about what’s going to happen to family that remains behind, as well as them actually making it to safety.”

“Forced Separation, Sarajevo,” 1993, Gilles Peress

That image, “Forced Separation, Sarajevo,” is one of three Peress has contributed to “Envisioning Human Rights,” a new exhibit to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Center, which held an opening reception Thursday in Boalt Hall’s Steinhart Courtyard. His other two photos on display, taken in 1999, show ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo after being driven from their homes by Serbian forces.

Stover, not surprisingly, was there.

For nearly two weeks in 1999, Peress took photos and Stover interviewed victims of Slobodan Milošević’s “ethnic cleansing” campaign, “the largest forced displacement of any population in Europe since 1945.” Some of what they learned would later be used in the Serbian leader’s war-crimes trial, brought under the auspices of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

In a single day, Stover said, the pair witnessed 23,000 refugees crossing the border. “And I can tell you,” he said, “at the end of a day of seeing 23,000 people who are displaced — your heart… It’s almost unspeakable.”

But where words fail, pictures can help fill the gap. “Envisioning Human Rights” features works by 10 photographers showing not just abuse and atrocities, but the extraordinary resilience of people the world over, from Rwanda, Iraq and Guatemala to the American South. The photographers have donated 38 of the works to be sold or auctioned to benefit the center.

“Army Directing the Annual Mayan Festival, Nebaj, Guatemala,” a 1984 photo by Jean-Marie Simon, shows soldiers overseeing a traditional indigenous procession.

In addition to Peress — Stover’s co-author on The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar — photographers contributing to the exhibit include Sebastião Salgado, Jean-Marie Simon, Susan Meiselas, Mimi Chakarova and the Graduate School of Journalism’s Ken Light, whose striking, black-and-white images of the Rio Grande Valley and rural Mississippi evoke a little-seen slice of American life from 1979 to 1989.

Chakarova, a Berkeley alum who made a feature-length documentary on trafficking and corruption, The Price of Sex, in 2011, attended Thursday’s courtyard gathering, as did Light, who hailed the Human Rights Center as the campus’s “unsung heroes.”

“We photographers go out and we see the world and make images,” Light said. “But if we didn’t have organizations like the Human Rights Center, our photographs might stay in a box, might not be seen by people, and the voices of the individuals that we record would not be heard.”

His own work in the show “looks at America, which we often forget is a country where issues of human rights must be fought daily,” he said, citing the example of Ferguson, Mo.

Others speaking briefly at the reception included HRC executive director Alexa Koenig, exhibit curator Pamela Blotner and Richard Buxbaum, a longtime member of the center’s advisory board and professor emeritus at Berkeley Law.

“What we tried to do here,” Stover explained, “is to try and capture the resilience of societies under siege.”

Not everyone can “jump on a plane and go out and change things,” he said. But the images in the show “remind us of the values we should aspire to,” and — hopefully — advance those values by supporting organizations like the Human Rights Center.

Even, perhaps, by buying a photograph.

“Envisioning Human Rights” will be on display outside the law school’s main library reading room through October. Images, photographers’ biographies and more can be viewed online.