Interview with Florian Westphal

The Press Office had the opportunity to interview Florian Westphal sharing his experience at the Summer School in Cinema, Human Rights and Advocacy.

Could you tell us more about your background and experience in broadcast journalism? What is your role as CEO of Save the Children Germany?

I have been interested in radio since I was a child. My first dream job was to work as a football reporter for radio. Unfortunately, I never made it! Later I worked for the BBC World Service and Swiss Radio International as a radio producer, reporter, and correspondent, including in Senegal. I then joined the International Committee of the Red Cross where I mainly worked as a spokesperson and media officer. There, I had the chance to experience broadcast journalism from the other side or – as a journalist once told me – as a poacher turned gamekeeper. Among the highlights of my time with the Red Cross was a trip with the German TV broadcaster ARD to the city of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the time almost cut off from the rest of the world. It was chaotic, but we ended up with a beautifully shot and highly relevant report about the lack of clean drinking water in this city which lies on one of the biggest waterways of the world, the river Congo.

In my current role with Save the Children I regularly talk to journalists about the organisation and its work for children, especially after my visits to places like Afghanistan and Yemen. Irrespective of all the doom and gloom about the supposed demise of the traditional media, radio and TV continue to play a key role when it comes to drawing the attention of political decision-makers and the public at large to the fate of children facing war or the impact of the climate crisis. As the number of children suffering from hunger, disease, a lack of education, poverty and violence is unfortunately going up in many parts of the world, I try to talk to media whenever I am given the opportunity to do so. We need credible and fact-based reporting by professional journalists and reporters to understand the problems of the world and to decide what we can do to make it a better place for children. And we need them to act as a counterweight to rampant propaganda and lies, which are very common in many of the countries where we work, especially where there is conflict.

Please, tell us more about your participation as one of the lecturers in the Summer School on Cinema, Human Rights and Advocacy: how was your interaction with the participants?

The Summer School is a unique event bringing together a mix of human rights activists, communicators, and filmmakers from across the globe. The participants had great plans and projects, from producing a film to warn children in northeast Nigeria about the danger of armed groups to staging film screenings in a poor area of New York City, where people hardly ever have the chance of going to a cinema. I admitted that when it comes to using video and photo as key tools to promote child rights, I probably had more questions than answers. We had a great discussion of various examples of how aid and human rights organisations use visual communication to promote child rights and generate support for their work. I liked the dynamism in the group and the spirit of critical but also respectful enquiry between the participants. It felt like they got a lot out of talking to each other, comparing notes about how to achieve their goals. The location certainly helped too. It’s special to work together in a place as beautiful as the Lido in Venice.

What are the most important challenges ahead in the field of communicating child rights? Could training opportunities on these topics give a contribution to solving some of these challenges in the near future?

All of us are flooded with reports and images of crises demanding our attention. To stand out, we need to communicate on child rights in ways that relate to our audience. We have to make them realise that in a globalised world a rights violation in a far-away country – take child labour in cobalt mining in Congo as an example - concerns all of us because we all use mobile phones that contain that cobalt. We need to establish a sense of proximity between our audiences and the children whose rights we are fighting for. And we should not just show the problems but ideally also propose to our audiences what they can do to help, how they can act.

We should also not forget the enormous problems facing many children in many rich countries. 1 in 5 children in my home country, Germany, are directly impacted by poverty. Despite all the wealth in Germany we are not able – or willing - to ensure all children can enjoy their basic right to grow up healthily and safely, and to learn. We need to tell their stories to garner support for the people and organisations working for and with children affected by poverty and exclusion everywhere in the world. As child rights organisations we need to change how we have been communicating about children. For far too long organisations – including unfortunately Save the Children - have been using visual White Saviour clichés showing European experts coming to the rescue of helpless children in poorer countries. That storyline is simply not true because in general the children themselves and their communities, not aid organisations, lead the fight against violence, discrimination, and marginalisation. They are not waiting for outsiders to start acting on injustice. We also have to admit to ourselves that the White Saviour myth betrays a deep-seated legacy of neocolonial thinking, especially in the wealthy countries of the global North. Thus, before we look at training, we need to critically examine our own attitudes and ways of working. Note, that I am not excluding myself here as a communicator who has been working in the aid sector for more than 20 years. How can we give children and their families a much bigger say in how they are shown by child rights organisations? During the workshop in Venice, we looked at how some organisations have started to tackle these questions. Because there are some good examples of stories that put the perspectives and voices of children in the foreground and that talk to communities rather than about them. Stories that show the work of the many community-based activists and aid workers that support disadvantaged children all over the world. We should focus training on how to use video and photos differently, in a more inclusive way. That holds for participants in the summer school but also for children themselves. All over the world young people use their smartphones to take photos and make videos. We should help them develop the techniques for storytelling, so they can show their own lives rather than wait for someone else to do it.

But there are risks linked to filming children and telling their stories. What does that mean for an organisation like Save the Children?

Our ultimate responsibility in everything we do is the security and dignity of the children we work for. We can’t just pretend that we are allowed to act as we like because our ultimate objectives are worthy. Even if we use photos and footage of children for the right ends like raising funds for our work, we can’t just do what we want. On the contrary, we owe it to children and their caregivers, that we carefully explain to them why we want to film them and how we intend to use the images. We need their informed consent, and that means we have be prepared to accept it when they say no.

We also need to show children in a way that respects their dignity as human beings. Fortunately, standards of what is considered acceptable have shifted significantly in this respect which is positive. There are only a few exceptional occasions where it may be justified for an aid organisation to show pictures of extreme suffering, for example of children on the brink of starvation. Our job is to do what we can to help these children, not to use their plight as a tool to draw attention to our work. Basically, as content creators or decision-makers we need to ask ourselves, whether we would agree to have our own children shown publicly in ways that disrespects their dignity.

We also need to be aware that sometimes by showing children we may be putting them at risk of violence, humiliation, or stigmatisation. Think, for example, of children that survived sexual and gender-based violence. Making them recognisable and exposing them publicly may expose them to further violence and humiliation. It can make it more difficult for survivors to come to terms with what has happened to them. Besides, no one needs to see the face of a child that has been brutally raped on video or in a photo to understand how fundamentally wrong and inhuman this crime is.

I also talked about new risks brought about by the criminal use of artificial intelligence to distort photos and videos of young people. AI has been used to generate pornographic images of children sold on the Dark Net, often based on totally innocent pictures posted on social media. Thus, it is not enough to think about the images of children we produce. We also need to be aware of how they can be disseminated and used in ways that cause enormous damage to the children they show.

Could you give a message to the students, professors, alumni, staff and partners of the Global Campus of Human Rights

The Summer School I joined encourages us to think about new, creative ways of how we can strengthen awareness and support for human rights. In an age where all too often governments fail to respect and apply human rights, public attention becomes ever more important. Visual storytelling is a great tool to raise that interest and to encourage action.

But we need to more creative when it comes to how we talk about people and their rights. Yes, we need to show and document the horrors that many children have to live through, especially in places like Ukraine or Sudan right now. But the people we want to reach with our communication are also interested in different storylines. Stories that show children who enjoy their rights and who thrive and progress because of the support they received. Stories that document the many ways in which children and young people are standing up for their own rights and thereby improving the world around them. As adults we need to learn to step aside at times to give children and young people the chance to speak their minds, to show their perspective on child rights issues like the global climate crisis and the disproportionate impact it has on poor children in particular.

The Global Campus is exactly the right place to explore and develop these alternative ways of storytelling about human rights and the people who fight for them. Hosting the Summer School in Cinema, Human Rights and Advocacy is a great step in that direction.

For more information contact our Press Office

Elisa Aquino – Giulia Ballarin – Andrea Cammarata

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