Welcome, Yvonne Ng, to the “Five Questions for…” series! Yvonne is the Archivist at WITNESS. Before joining WITNESS in 2009, she was a research fellow on the NDIIPP-funded Preserving Digital Public Television Project. She has also worked at NYU Libraries and New York Public Library. Yvonne holds an M.A. in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from New York University.
1. Where do you work?
I’m the Archivist at WITNESS, a non-profit organization based in New York that supports human rights activists to use video effectively and safely to document abuses and advocate for change. Since our founding by musician Peter Gabriel, Human Rights First, and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation in 1992, we have partnered with hundreds of human rights groups and trained thousands of activists around the world.
2. How did you get there?
I actually did not have much of a human rights background prior to WITNESS, so I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to immerse myself in this area for the past 5 years. I have always had an interest in social justice and politics though, and have been involved in many activist and community organizations over the years.
My first experience working in an archive came in 2005. A generous grant from the Canadian government allowed me to intern at the San Francisco Media Archive, and then to work at Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre in Toronto for the rest of the year to coordinate a mass inspection of their 16mm artist film collection.
I enrolled in New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program in 2006. While in school, I worked as an assistant in NYU Libraries’ Conservation and Preservation Lab, and as a processing intern at New York Public Library.
For a year after I completed my M.A., I worked as an NDIIPP-funded research fellow on the Preserving Digital Public Television Project at NYU Libraries, producing a report on sustainability factors that affect digital preservation. When the fellowship ended, I had 60 days to find another job or leave the country. It was a very stressful and uncertain time during which I was applying for jobs while also packing up my apartment.
Fortunately, the WITNESS Archivist position was posted during that period. It was my dream job, and it came at just the right time, so I was very lucky.
3. What materials/collections do you work with? Describe the materials and collections you work with on a regular or project basis.
The WITNESS Media Archive is made up of over 5000 hours of videos (and still images) shot or produced by our partners and by WITNESS staff. The videos include documentation of human rights violations, testimonies from witnesses and victims, undercover hidden camera footage, interviews with activists and human rights defenders, advocacy videos created by our partners, and WITNESS training videos.
The collection dates from the mid-1990s to the present, so the archive holds variety of analog and digital formats, on tape and in digital files. Our priorities now are to sustain our technological infrastructure to support our growing digital collection, transfer our videotapes to file-based formats for internal access and preservation, and to continue our ongoing deposit of digital masters to the University of Texas Libraries for long-term preservation and research access.
Besides managing our own collections, the WITNESS Media Archive sees a role for itself in supporting activists to archive and preserve their own videos. Rather than trying to serve as a repository for all human rights video (an impossible task), we aim to empower activists to maintain custody over their own collections or to collaborate with others. To that end, we work on creating training resources like the Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video.
4. What impact do/should/could archives have on human rights?
Archives can have a great impact on human rights. They enable people to access records of the past, which can inform the collective memory and be used to achieve justice and accountability for wrongdoings. As a practice, archiving provides a systematic way for witnesses and survivors to preserve their documentation so that it can be identified, authenticated, and accessed, increasing the possibility that the experiences they want to share will be seen, believed, and understood by others.
5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights archivists?
When I tell people what I do, a common response I hear is “Wow, that must be such a depressing job.” Sometimes, yes, it can be depressing or even horrifying to see or hear about (and have to catalog) abuses and atrocities. This is a phenomenon that probably deserves more attention in our field. However, with the content that I deal with at least, I ultimately come away more with a feeling of humbleness at the courage I see exhibited by the people in the footage, and a deepened sense of connection and commitment to them and their cause. I have been fortunate to have been able to meet some of our partners in person, and each time I felt like I knew them already because I had seen so much of them and their work beforehand. As cheesy as it sounds, the people we work with are absolutely inspiring and constantly renew my faith in the human spirit.