People often say a picture is worth a thousand words. For Island filmmaker Len Morris, some pictures are worth a thousand lives.
Morris is the editorial director of Media Voices for Children, a Vineyard-based nonprofit that produces documentaries with a focus on children’s human rights. The group’s latest project, Beneath the Barcode, is an installation of images meant to inform, engage, and equip communities with the tools to consider the conditions of child labor behind common consumer commodities. The documentary photo exhibit premieres at the West Tisbury library on Saturday, Jan. 12, from 3:30 to 5 pm.
“We want people to leave with real information,” Morris said. “If I don’t want to buy Nestle chocolate bars because of the terrible conditions of child labor behind it, what should I buy? We want to provide those answers. It’s not an exhibit to exude guilt and anger. It’s an exhibit to produce engagement and more investigation.”
The photos in the exhibit were taken by U. Roberto “Robin” Romano, Morris’ longtime friend and photographic filmmaking partner who died in 2013.
“He left me his entire lifetime of photography and film,” Morris said. “Mostly because we did the lion’s share of it together.”
Morris and Romano worked together for more than 30 years. They produced several human rights documentaries, including “Stolen Childhoods” and “Rescuing Emmanuel.” They’ve told the stories of children from all over the world as well as here at home. Behind the Barcode represents a collection of Romano’s work starting in 1996. His last shoot was in Afghanistan just before he died.
“Sometimes it took multiple trips,” Morris said. “You can’t schedule child labor, and you’re not welcome when you go to film it.”
Romano’s innate skill made up for that.
“Robin was very, very gifted,” Morris said, “and the children shined through. He was kind of a cross between a combat photographer and an 11-year-old. [The children] just looked at him right away and knew he was one of them. They would trust him. I remember this — he’d take a Swiss Leica camera, something he couldn’t replace. He’d put a roll of film in it and hand it to a street kid and say, ‘Here, take pictures.’ He was just like that. He was really very cool, and kids knew it and gravitated toward him.”
When it came time to curate the exhibit, Morris had close to 30,000 images and an almost too-close relationship to the work. He asked Melissa Knowles, an addition to the Media Voices team as of a year ago, to deep-dive into Romano’s archives.
“There were lots of photos, but it wasn’t an overwhelming task,” Knowles said. “I’m quite used to the numbers.”
Knowles has background in photography, collection management, and archiving. To start, she looked through Romano’s already printed film.
“We certainly see less of film today,” Knowles said. “It’s a very different feel from digital.”
She narrowed down the collection to 35 images, both film and digital.
“I think the wonderful thing about this work is that [Romano] manages to capture the humanity of the child, even though they are subject to all forms of child labor and trafficking,” Knowles said. “These are beautiful moments, and I think these children can be our greatest teachers… They show such compassion, and Robin really does photograph that side of them.”
She commented on today’s media with its shocking and dramatic images from around the world.
“I don’t think it’s fair for a photographer to go in and exploit people in order to try to help them,” Knowles said. “The process needs to be positive for those being photographed, and through that, a sense of beauty can come across. The exhibit is designed to be a positive experience… It’s not one-dimensional.”
“It’s not, ‘Let’s look at 20 pictures, one worse than the next of children being abused,’” Morris said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, I can make you feel guilty in seconds. But that’s not the job… We want people to learn and have options — not be discouraged, but be motivated.”
In addition to the photo exhibit, Behind the Barcode includes an action plan. Viewers walk away with research, apps for their phones, videos, and other tools to help them make more informed decisions about the items they choose to purchase. The exhibit will be on display at the library through the end of the month, and then occupy other libraries and schools on-Island. The goal is to have the exhibit be a circulating permanent fixture in schools. It’ll expand to communities off-Island as well.
“We have concrete plans for Behind the Barcode in schools in Florida in February. There will also be an exhibit in New York City in March,” Morris said. “We send all the info, the kit, and high-res scans. They can be printed locally. We have the technology to make the show available literally anywhere in the world.”
The work is global, afterall. About half a million of Romano’s photographs were donated to the Dodd Center for Human Rights at the University of Connecticut where they’re available for use for other human rights organizations.
“Anyone in coalitions I’ve known and worked with for over 20 years,” Morris said. “In 1996, the Department of Labor asked [Romano and I] to go to five countries to film and report on the conditions of child labor.” They visited India, Brazil, Kenya, Indonesia, and Mexico. “We came back and wrote the first report to Congress in the United States,” he said. “It was 80 pages long.” Today, that report is prepared by 90 people at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and is over a thousand pages long.
The DOL has been a leader in the global work to minimize and eliminate child labor. Romano and Morris’ work has been instrumental.
“The solutions to these issues are emerging,” Morris said. “After 20 years of doing this work, I’m optimistic… Child labor is changing. It’s been cut by 100 million in 20 years. Its gone from 250 million to 152 million. There’s real change, and this is all part of it.”