Human Rights and Environment special nomination from Wiki Loves Earth 2023: what I learned with my first experience as juror in a photographic contest


On December 10th 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. According to the UN, the Declaration “is a milestone in the history of human rights”, although it has been continuously violated in all the regions of the globe. In 2023, seventy five years after the Declaration, the world is witnessing an increase in poverty, forced migration, genocides and other types of transgression of all of its 30 Articles. 


Notwithstanding, global environmental changes pose an additional threat to human rights. Ecosystem degradation, species extinction, desertification, extended drier periods followed by extreme rainfall are all consequences of the post-Industrial Revolution development and are expected to intensify with the development of the Anthropocene – aka Capitalocene, the geological epoch when the 1% richest put the poorest two-thirds of the global population into climate risk. At the time of the Declaration, the human right for a clean environment, and the fundamental right of the Environment to be preserved, was not an issue. It only began to gain attention in the decade of 1960. 


Though late, it is also true that the social pressure for environmental protection is yielding good results, and nowadays Human Rights and the Environment are gradually being considered as a whole. In October 2021, the Human Rights Council of the UN recognized that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. In the same year, the Wiki Loves Earth photo contest launched the first special nomination “Human rights and Environment” with the goal to “raise awareness of nature protection and human impacts on nature”.


In its third edition, I was honoured to participate in the International Jury Team, along with five women experts in human rights and environmental law. This year, more than 8500 photos were submitted to the contest and we were given the difficult task to evaluate, comment and choose ten winners out of almost 300 finalists. 


Each contest has its own judging procedures. In this case, for each image, we had to grade the photos from 0 to 10 and my first learning from the process absolutely confirms what is well-known and widely ignored by photographers in contests of this type: the impact of each individual photo is highly dependent on its caption. Beautiful nature photos lacking a sharp explanation on why they relate to the theme of the contest, namely Environment and Human Rights, were given less points and my reason for this does not exist in a void. I am highly influenced by the photographer Cristina Mittermier and her argument that “Conservation Photography” differs from “nature photography” due to the purpose it has to communicate a socio environmental issue, and not simply serving as a pleasant artistic image. In this sense I agree with the Brazilian photographer Luiz Claudio Marigo, who once wrote (in an unfortunately no longer available text) on the value of the information provided by the caption of a photograph and. Thus, I was looking for the story conveyed by the photos and its description was a key part of it. 


(A small note here: I don’t think that every photograph has to tell a story – instead, all of them have an interesting story behind it, and this is precisely the reason for my blog. I agree with the photographer Susan Sontag when she writes in page 84 of On Photography, “Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning”. However, the adherence for the Human Rights and Environmental narrative was an important factor to be judged in this special nomination of the contest and, to me, the relevance of the photos were highly dependent on the context.)


The second thing I learned is that the pleasantness of the photos (and their respective stories) are completely relative. After my first round of judging, I started once again and the comparison between photos is inevitable. I wondered several times why I rated one given photo with a lower grade than another, and considered raising or lowering the ratings several times. Thus, judging is hard and difficult decisions are to be taken. Leaving apart beautiful photos was the most challenging part of the experience to me.  


Finally, I had the chance to see and read about places and cultures worldwide, which was for sure the most exciting part of the task. I learned about riverine pollution, fishing communities, urban parks and much more. So, I congratulate the winners and would like to say a big thank you to Wiki Loves Earth for the opportunity, and to the entrants for the unique learning experience you provided. Hopefully, the photographs will serve as a tool to raise awareness and sensibilize the calling for conservation actions and towards the promotion of the declared human rights 75 years ago, as well as everyone’s right for the Environment.