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Martin Luther King (centre) in Birmingham, Ala., in a December, 1965, photograph by Bob Fitch. (RYERSON IMAGE CENTRE)
Martin Luther King (centre) in Birmingham, Ala., in a December, 1965, photograph by Bob Fitch. (RYERSON IMAGE CENTRE)

A portrait of the 20th century through news photos offers brutal glimpses of human nature Add to ...

A quiet but significant development last fall was the opening of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, a new museum devoted to photography that has already established itself as a leading fulcrum for intelligent debate on the medium and its far-reaching effects. Its second show, Human Rights Human Wrongs, is a case in point.

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Drawn from the famed Black Star Collection (an archive of more than 292,000 news photographs donated to Ryerson by British Columbia billionaire Jim Pattison), it brings together 316 pictures that offer a highly subjective but revealing portrait of the 20th century. The show was organized by London-based curator Mark Sealy and offers a rare opportunity to ponder not only the bloody progress of the past century but also – as he put it in his recent talk in Toronto – to think about “what photography has done to us” since its invention in the early 19th century: confronting us with indelible proof of the very best and the very worst of our human nature.

Thus we move from the benevolent and fearless face of Martin Luther King (photographed by Phelps (Flip) Schulke and Bob Fitch) to the American soldier in Vietnam who carries a blood-spattered infant in one hand like a football (is the baby dead or alive?), his cocky swagger captured forever in a picture by Richard Merron.

Sealy organizes the images in chronological groupings, encouraging us to experience the past in all its complexity. In this way, events are brought together that may have settled in the mind over time into separate silos. The Russian invasion of Prague in 1968 occurs at the height of the Vietnam War and the protests against it, and is concurrent with the assassination of King. As the black civil-rights movement gains momentum in the United States through the sixties, a spate of African nations across the Atlantic are coming to sovereign statehood: Algeria, the Congo, Kenya, Chad. (The show gives us harrowing images of the Birmingham, Ala., race riots (shot by Charles Moore) as well as documentation of the first Organization of African Unity conference in Addis Ababa – both taking place in May, 1963.) The Black Panther Party and China’s Cultural Revolution both kick off in 1966, and we are left to worry at the paradox of how the human will to social justice (in this latter case, bent in pursuit of the communist ideal) can lead to acts of violence as horrific as those perpetrated by those who seek to oppress and exploit.

Many of the images here were previously unpublished, others are iconic, triggering heightened awareness of the way in which our experience is shaped by editorial intercession. History books organize events, create narratives and arrange the chaos of experience into orderly patterns. Sealy willfully, and with the keenest of intellectual purpose, messes things up.

While the show is long on horror, it is also full of hope. The opening gallery of the exhibition contains not only the Life magazine spreads of the just-liberated concentration camps in Germany and Poland, replete with grisly photojournalistic evidence of the Holocaust, but also the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Sealy emblazons high on the wall, and, close by them, a photo documenting their adoption by the United Nations at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in December, 1948. However flawed the UN has turned out to be, it has, for the first time in history, provided a locus for collective human efforts toward a fairer, less violent world. This, at least, is something to hold on to.

Human Rights Human Wrongs continues at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto until April 14. Concurrently at RIC, Alfredo Jaar: The Politics of Images presents the Chilean-born artist’s three-channel video We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know (2010), responding to international indifference to the Rwandan genocide.

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