“They don’t build them like this anymore,” I thought as I waited in the rotunda of the San Francisco City Hall for the 2017 Voices for Justice Human Rights Watch Annual Dinner attendees to arrive. Built in the Beaux-Arts architecture style so popular in the US in the end of the 19th Century and extending into the first decades of the 20th, couples throng to it for wedding photos and this was the case even on this sleepy Thursday evening in November.
Event workers bustled around the area, placing lights and candles, aiming signs, finishing up with the final preparations for the soon to arrive guests while I stood on the round steps at the base of the grand staircase that ascends up to the second floor including open air walkways from where I strategized a shooting plan. I was here to photograph “emotions” of the evening, playing backup to another photographer who would stage portraits of those 300 who paid top dollar for a night of “opportunity to learn, engage, and celebrate the progress” HRW “made in the human rights movement” in 2016. At the strike of six, attendees began to flow into the large open room, some gravitating to the small tables interspersed around the room while others grouped into bunches, reuniting with old friends, colleagues and socialites.
For over 35 years, Human Rights Watch has been at the forefront of the international human rights movement, investigating human rights abuses and exposing the truth in order to bring about deep-rooted change.
HRW’s annual galas are a major fundraising event for this prominent human rights NGO. Receiving no funding from any governments or corporations, their $100 million budget comes from a combination of ongoing giving plus the proceeds of these 24 galas held around the world in 13 countries over the course of five months.
Using as wide an aperture as I felt comfortable with at a manually set shutter speed of 1/60 of a second, I roamed the hall seeking out interesting stories told in gestures and compositional elements. Mixed in with the ticket-holders were various Human Rights Watch directors and researchers as well as guests whose lives were changed due to the work of Elizabeth Calvin in the field of fair sentencing for youth offenders.
The gala soon moved to an adjoining hall where tables were numbered, bottles of wine poised, place settings meticulously laid out, and blue lamps etched with inspirational words in a variety of languages threw a cool glow over the details. At the front of the hall were two large screens that would, during the course of the evening, be projected several riveting videos laying out the need HRW addresses, their methodology, people, and successes.
Alternating through the evening were periods of presentations on the stage, an interview with two formerly incarcerated men who are out due to the work of Human Rights Watch, and socializing over a multi-course meal.
Two days previous to this, the Silicon Valley chapter of HRW had their annual gala and reportedly received $750,000 of pledges. Jen Haile, City (SF) Director challenged this group that they can do better than that. Instructed on how pledging works via text, the two video screens began scrolling names of those who had texted in their contributions under which was a total raised at that moment. It was a mesmerizing thing seeing the number tick along in skips and then jumps over the span of about a half hour. Occasionally glancing up at the screen, I spent much of my time looking for images to take of those digging into themselves to find the dollar amount they were willing to give. Then the number stalled out at $299,946 for what seemed like a very long time before turning over to a clean $300,000 and then popping to $300,006, a number that would remain for a few minutes before jumping to my surprise to $550,006. I wasn’t the only one surprised by this. Near me I heard a lady exclaim, “Did you do that?!” and the youthful man next to her sheepishly smile and nod.
It was a fantastic evening for me as well as for those who helped to make what appears to have been a very successful gala.
As Jen Haile pointed out on the phone when I talked to her about photographing this event, 2018 looks to be an especially challenging year. On top of what is happening the US surrounding wage inequality, immigrant rights, refugee treatment, and other worrying trends, internationally events in Myanmar among the Rohingya, policies in the Philippines, the deadly clashes and famine in South Sudan, as well as other troubling topics beg for their attention.