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Photographer and legal scholar Henry J. Steiner connects art and human rights

October 12, 2017

By Natalia Sanchez-Nigolian C’19

On October 10, Henry J. Steiner, Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard University, visited Penn Law to engage in discussion with students about his newly released book, Eyeing the World, as part of the Law School’s Critical Global Conversations.

Steiner is a noted scholar of international law and human rights, and the book is a global study of humankind through photographs, which range from depictions of couples on Brazilian beaches to women at work in Indian villages.

Steiner was presented by Rangita de Silva de Alwis, the Law School’s Associate Dean for International Programs, who studied under Steiner at Harvard Law, and noted that he had a profound effect on the academic programs of human rights.

“When we used to walk into his office he would have these beautiful photographs, and that was the first thing the student would see,” said de Silva de Alwis. “Even before he was a published and distinguished artist, that [photography] was a defining part of who he was.”

In his emeritus years, Steiner explained, he has had the opportunity to delve deeper into his longstanding interest in photography. He marvels at the tools of the digital world and explores their ability to enhance a photograph and alter the impression his art leaves on the viewer.

Steiner spoke about his evolution as a photographer and the subtleties of being present without disturbing his subjects. “I learned to become less visible, to become part of the community,” he said.

Following Steiner’s presentation of selected images from his book, students of the international law and human rights program engaged in a discussion moderated by students Beatriz Brown LLM’18 and Tanya Jairaj LLM’18. Brown challenged Steiner on the suitability of photography to convey meaning, given its tendency as an art form to arouse feeling as opposed to fact.

“One of the fundamental aspects of human rights is that we are all equal in human dignity,” said Steiner. He seeks to show the beauty of human life in its dignified forms and hopes that the emotional response elicited will enhance people’s perspectives of equal human dignity.

“Whether we are people of god or people of nature,” he said, “however we see ourselves, it is most important that we see each other as equals.” 

After the event, Brown spoke of her impressions and commented on her perception of the relationship between photography and global human rights.

“As practitioners [of law] we must never lose sight of the effect of our own choices,” she said. “We saw this illustrated by Professor Steiner’s editing [of photographs] and comments on how he affected nature around him.”

“Human rights practice needs careful attention to both the interests of those that ‘do’ it, as well as those it is ‘done to,’” she noted, “particularly as there is much cynicism in some corners of the globe as to whose narrative frame we employ when deciding who merits rights-based attention.”