I had the unbelievable luck and great honor to meet Leora Kahn during the 6th Thessaloniki International Media Summer Academy, held in Thessaloniki, Greece last summer. She was among the distinguished speakers who were invited by Professors Nikos Panagiotou and Christos Fragonikolopoulos of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, to share their expertise and experience with a group of young journalists, students and media professionals who participated in the program. She captivated everyone the moment she took the floor. She is the Founder and Executive Director of “PROOF: Media for Social Justice”, an organization that uses photojournalism and visual storytelling in order to advocate for human rights and peacebuilding. She has previously worked as a photo editor for 25 years. Leora Kahn has been a fellow at the Genocide Studies Center at Yale University, and the Cathy Cohen Lasry Visiting Lecturer at Clark University’s Holocaust and Genocide Center. She is also a recipient of The Adriane de Rothschild Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship and a Fulbright Senior Specialist. Despite being inexcusably late (and apologizing personally to her for that), I share our interview at a moment that the world witnesses an ongoing tragedy that she happens to know very well: the war in Sudan, 20 years after the start of one of the most brutal genocidal crimes of our times, the Darfur genocide, that Leora Kahn has been studying thoroughly and has also curated the book “Drafur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide” about it. This is Leora and “PROOF”’s story.
– Mrs. Kahn, in your own words, what is “PROOF”?
“PROOF” is a non profit organization that uses visual storytelling for social change, and we do that in a number of ways. We create exhibitions about human rights, we teach high school students how to use a camera as a tool for social change, we have a university programme called “The Moral Courage” programme, in the University of Dayton, where students have a year long course, learning about how to use testimonies and photography; they also create podcasts about different issues. We use the data that we collect to see if there is any change. We want to influence policy makers, we want to promote attitude change, that’s what the exhibitions are about. “PROOF” started out as primarily international, but we are based in the United States and we also do domestic work. But we’re working mostly in post conflict countries, using this “tool” to promote change.
– How was “PROOF” born? What was the driving force that led to it?
Before I became a Professor and an academic, I was a photo editor, so I worked a lot with photojournalists. I have also worked with Holocaust survivors. I thought that in order to prevent further mass violence and further genocide, what can we do? We can show past conflicts, try to teach people to look at what’s going on and educate them. I was trying to figure out strategies to do that with the use of photography and visual storytelling, and that’s how the idea of “PROOF” was born.
– Can you recall one of the first projects that you took on as “PROOF”?
Yes. A project we did in Rwanda. I got my first degree in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation, so I wanted to look at what happened in Rwanda in 1994, where the Hutus killed over 700.000 Tutsis. I wanted to see what I knew. I went in Rwanda in 2006 and thought that the best way to make a difference was to show the Hutus who had saved Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide; to look at positive stories. “PROOF” looks at positive stories to make change — and that’s a big difference. Instead of showing all the killers and the perpetrators, let’s show the other side, what people can do, people who are rescued, let’s show people that we can be upstanders in very, very difficult situations. Here in Greece, there have been a lot of people who have been helping refugees. I would call these people upstanders. So, that’s really what we wanted this first project to be. We wanted to show the population, the Tutsis and the Hutus, that there are people that are good. In Rwanda, the Holocaust and in Bosnia, it was very, very hard to go against what your government said. If your government said “Tutsis are gonna kill you and they’re no more than cockroaches”, you were gonna believe them, if you didn’t have the ability to think critically. So the idea was to create a project that uses the storytelling, the testimonies, the photographs, go around the country with a mobile exhibition and talk about these people. We did that in Rwanda, as well as in Bosnia, in Cambodia and in Sri Lanka. We were gonna do it in Iraq, but it was too dangerous.
– Why do you focus on post-conflict zones?
I work only in post-conflict zones, because it’s hard to do change in conflict — look upon Ukraine, I’m not gonna go in there and try interviewing Russians helping Ukrainians, it’s not gonna work at that point. It’s a matter of time. The idea of it is that positive stories can make change. You don’t learn anything from talking about evil, you understand more when learning why people do good. And that’s really my philosophy. Sometimes it’s hard to see that, because of what’s going on in this world, but I think that it is really important.
– So what do you at “PROOF” do differently compared to other agencies, in terms of testimonies?
There are many different ways that you can use testimonies; for legal purposes and trials for instance. “PROOF” uses testimonies to help the people that we’re working with, to give these people a voice, to give them agency. And to do that, the first step is to listen to their stories, because hearing what they have to say gives them agency. If we can do nothing else, we just listen to them. Our method is to go in, listen with empathy, make them feel comfortable, and we make sure that we’re doing what they want. If they don’t wanna do it, they’re not gonna testify. Our end goal at “PROOF” is to get what the people that are in the project want.
– Would you tell us about the project with rape survivors?
That project was really truthful. The goal was to help change policies in some of the local communities, governments and international governments, and to change attitudes. We had many partners from different agencies; in the UN, local partners, women’s groups in the different countries that we worked in, and the overall partner was “TRIAL International”, as they were trying to bring some of the testimonies to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but a lot of the women involved were reluctant to testify to them. These women want gender based violence to be stopped in their country. Their stories are really powerful and upsetting and graphic, but if people don’t hear them, nothing’s gonna change. If everybody remains silent, if you bury the stories and you don’t bring them out to the community (to the different agencies that make change, to the mayors of your cities, to the ministers of health to get health care etc.) nothing will change. So that was the purpose out of many reasons. And of course, dispel the stigma.
– Could you tell us more about the stigma that these women are experiencing?
Victims – really, survivors – of gender based violence are often stigmatized because of it in their communities. They’d never told their stories to their husbands. And finally, they did. For these women’s sons and husbands and neighbors, to hear the stories is very important. When the stories finally get out you can identify with them, because these women look like your moms, your sisters. People usually say “that wouldn’t happen to my mom or my sister” — well, yeah, it would. Who do you think it happens to? It happens to our grandmothers. It’s a crime, it’s not sexual. To have this exhibition travel all over the world and have some of the survivors speak was really powerful.
– And what about the exhibition?
When we had them coming to Bogota to see the exhibit opening, they’d never been on a plane before, they’d never been out of their region. When we opened in Santa Marta, which is where they live, I said to them “You really shouldn’t come up to me and hug me and kiss me, because nobody is supposed to know who you are, to know that you’re in the exhibition”. I was really, really worried about it, because their perpetrators live right there. Anyway, they didn’t listen to me, we couldn’t help ourselves! I’ve been back many times and when you get that close, you feel a responsibility to keep them safe, to make sure that you can do as much as possible, do what you promised to do, whether it’s beyond your control or not. I have access to a lot of different agencies and people, so I was able because of my position to get access for them, which they wouldn’t have gotten. And now they got it. And now they’re on their own and they’re doing amazing things. They don’t need me, they do it themselves. They are amazing. And a lot of them became human rights activists because of it — that’s another thing that I didn’t really think about. That’s the power of visual storytelling. Using their words, using their provocative and evocative photos, I think in a lot of cases, it can help make change. Not all the time, it doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.
– So it is so much more than just about the exhibition. These women becoming human rights activists? That’s the long lasting impact that “PROOF” has on communities.
That’s the base. I wanna make change for them. I go in and we talk, we spend a lot of time together. It’s for them, it’s not for me, it’s not for my organization and that’s the big difference of what we do. They’ve been interviewed by journalists and lawyers, and they don’t see change. The difference is that we ask them what they want. I am not doing it because I’m thinking that “it’s cool”, I am doing it because I believe in change for them. “PROOF” doesn’t take any projects that we don’t believe in. It’s all about helping them; helping them get the services that they need, helping them get the confidence to talk about it. And the other thing is that when you do this and you’re putting them all together they become a community and they are able to reach out because of what happened to them. Because of this exhibition, a lot of people came in and they were able to collect 100 more stories: they listened to 100 other women telling their stories. That’s huge, because they never told stories to each other and the only reason why more women did talk about it was because they saw the exhibition. It made them think that they could finally tell their story, they could finally get it out.
– Would you share with us another project?
Yes. As I told you, we work with local and international agencies — it depends upon what the project is. For instance, I work with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN. We worked with the ICC on a project on child soldiers. That was a different kind of project; it was kind of a “shame and blame” exhibition, because it was brought to the UN, to the Special Rapporteur for Children and Armed Conflict, and it traveled all over. We had to make sure that the kids on the project were protected, because some of them are still alive and they’re not adults. The idea was for the Special Rapporteur to go in front of the UN and the ICC, and to look at these kids that could be their kids. It’s against international law to have children as soldiers. They are 8 years old with guns.
– So what did you do?
I sat down with the UN to figure out our strategy. It’s not like we’re having photographers taking beautiful pictures — it’s not about the photography. The pictures are supposed to show what’s going on and the strategy for this particular project was to get all of the nation states that are using child soldiers and bring in the media, the ICC and everybody else to see what the effects of having child soldiers are in the whole world. People think of child soldiers in Africa, but they are everywhere. I am sure the Russians and the Ukrainians have child soldiers. At that point, there were 250.000 child soldiers — this number is growing. They were killers, but they were children. We wanted to get the states that hadn’t signed the protocol against child soldiers (the US among them) to sign. That’s what I mean when I am talking about shaming and blaming. We also did a book on it.
– Last but not least, I want your comment on hate speech in the United States, comparing the pre- and after-Trump era.
There was always hate. But he gave people license to be hateful. You can’t call people these horrible words that he uses. He allowed all this violence to happen. I’ve never seen anything like it. When you give people license to talk like that, they’re gonna start doing it. Normal people won’t. If your parents have raised you right, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to understand that those are really hurtful words that can lead, as we’ve seen, in other mass atrocities. But he was saying that people who used these horrible words are “good people”. It starts from one spectrum and ends up to mass violence. There are so many more incidents of hate speech, and then hate crimes, because of him. We all thought that this could never happen in our country. It’s like he stirred it up and he allowed all these words to come out of the pot.
– What would have happened if he wasn’t elected? Would we have witnessed this outburst of violence?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that anti-Asian incidents have been going up 400 times — that never would have happened. When the leader of a country uses bigotry words and you’re not a critical thinker and you’re not thoughtful enough to think that “this is crazy”, you think that it’s ok. He is telling you that it’s okay. If the POTUS, the most powerful person in the world, says it’s okay to use horrible words, why wouldn’t you do it? That’s what happens in genocide. The leader of a country says it’s okay, so why would you question if it’s not okay to kill the other because they’re not like you, to burn a cross in front of a black person’s house, to shoot a black person walking down the street because of their skin? Your president says “these people are rapists”, so you should be scared, that’s the narrative. You can see how manipulative he is. He is very, very good at manipulating people. He is brilliant at it. And that’s what’s really terrifying. And it was terrifying for someone like me, who studies genocide to watch how it started, the rise of hate speech. We did an exhibition about hate speech in Texas, a state in the South that is particularly right wing, and that’s exactly why we went there. The United States is very unequal in its education. If you have a good education and you are able to think critically about situations, you see an article on the paper and you question it. But many people haven’t been taught that, and they watch one news channel that’s filled with lies. In 1984 when Ronald Reagan was President, the United States deregulated all of the laws about lies. Today, nobody is monitoring lies in social media. They can say whatever they want and people believe it, because they’re not looking at the sources. It’s a scary world — it really, really is.