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Photography students at Napier University tackle issue of Arms Trade Treaty and international weapons industry in book series

Blog by Dominic Sowa (Amnesty International Scotland, Volunteer)


Second year BA (Hons) Photography and Film students at Napier University are releasing a series of photography books exploring the issues surrounding the arms trade. The project was inspired by the Amnesty International campaign, ‘One Shot’, that is coinciding with a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a bulletproof treaty. 

The series of three books, called ‘One Shot: Conflict, Nexus and Trade’, is released during a period of increasing international pressure to formulate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that will regulate the arms industry. Currently, the sale of produce like bananas and even dinosaur remains comes under the regulation of international law, yet the law fails to extend to the armaments industry.   

The students were split into three groups with the task of producing content for and editing three books on different elements of the arms trade.  The images work as part of a narrative series and so individual pieces of work resonate and communicate meaning to the ones around it. According to student and contributor James Parker, “It enabled the students to collaborate, share and question the problems which surround the arms trade, through the medium of photography.”

Catherine McCready, a photography student and contributor to the project explored the connection between the production of weapons in Northern Ireland and the paramilitary conflict that still simmers in places. She says that her aim was to “draw attention to the fact that the British Government [has] sold their equipment irresponsibly to nations such as Syria and highlight the links between the industry and the paramilitaries”

For other students like Patricia Lawson, the false assumption that weapons can create peace was of key interest. She says, “Being a Canadian and living next to the US makes me a strong believer that guns aren't as much to protect, but to induce harm onto others, which just isn't right. Fear and chaos is no way to win any situation, especially if there are those who are willing to sacrifice themselves to uphold justice.”

Throughout the world, companies profit from selling weapons and military supplies to nations where there is a high risk of their use in human rights violations. The UK is one of the world’s biggest weapons exporters and is a highly profitable industry. However, the UK has given licences for arms and security exports to Algeria, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey, Zambia and Zimbabwe - all countries where we have serious human rights concerns.

The easy access that regimes like Syria have had to weapons in the past is a key contributor to the on-going conflict there.  After researching for the project, Patricia Lawson said that one of her aims was to “better explain how citizens don't understand how their money is behind handled behind their backs, and if something isn't done about it the situation can get totally out of hand. Not just for the UK, but all countries involved.”  

Colin Cavers of Napier University and lecturer on the second-year course said that the students had the chance to really benefit from this project. He says, “Often students explore themselves in photography rather than the world around them”. This project gave the student the impetus to have their thoughts and views of the world challenged in authentic ways and this comes through in the work. Art in general and photography specifically has a unique ability to explore the complex issues relating to the ATT. Colin Cavers stresses that the power of photography is to “re-represent” reality and allows viewers to engage with well-known imagery in new and powerful ways.

Photography student Nadine Yardley explored the idea of cause and effect relating to weapons and their surrounding environments through the use of repeating imagery with slight changes. “After a workshop with contemporary art photographer Ron O'Donnell I took great inspiration and knowledge from his ways of working. His series of images named ‘The Suicide Bombers’ really captured my attention, I knew then I needed that feeling of what will become or what "had" been. A simple yet effective portrait of a gun, a grenade, a mortar bomb would stand as my eye opener to the public eye.

Student James Parker elaborated on the potential of photography to influence the debate. “Photography is a great tool to make a worldwide audience, sit up and listen - Something which needs to happen in context of the arms trade”, he says.  “Too many people do not realise how much we indirectly contribute to weapons manufacturing, defence systems etc. … In my opinion photography is a tool, a powerful tool to create a powerful statement, without writing articles, protesting or giving presentations.”  

Colin Cavers approached Amnesty International Scotland about working together on the project due to interest in human rights issues on the photography course in past years. The topic of the arms trade comes in many ways from an interest in the Arab Spring which showed how western backed regimes, supported financially and militarily, could turn western produced weapons on their own people. 

Working on the project has made it clear to the students just how important it is to get a truly bullet proof ATT agreed upon by the UN. “It is long overdue, and it should have been dealt with years ago, why it should take governments nearly a decade to get on board with the treaty is ridiculous”, said James Parker. “Britain should do more, and hopefully become a forerunner in pushing this treaty through, whilst being a solid foundation to make sure the treaty holds”

The students from Napier University are engaging with this hugely important topic at a key stage in the campaign as the UN is set to debate the contents of the ATT between the 2nd and 27th June.  For many of the participants in the project, their own views on the necessity to champion robust legislation are strong. “It is an improvement on what is currently in place and will hopefully bring down the amount of child soldiers, deaths and all the other terrible events that happen because of the trade”, said student Blanche Carreras.

Although the UK government has promised that it will place human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, the arms trade is still cloaked in secrecy. Amnesty is campaigning to pressure governments to live up to their commitments to human rights. The ‘One Shot: Conflict, Nexus and Trade’ series is engaging in this critical debate and has the potential to play a large role. As student and contributor Blanche Carreras said, “By using photography and other forms of art, the debates surrounding the Arms Trade Treaty will be what people are talking about, and even more debates will arise.”  

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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