Coffee-Table Gravitas

Is the S,M,L,XL treatment the best way to talk about human rights?

When Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau’s S,M,L,XL thudded into bookstores almost a decade ago, it started a trend for big design tomes that continues to this day. Weighing in at 700-plus pages, The Face of Human Rights has the same kind of austere typographic cover. This might be appropriate for the subject—one of the most pressing issues we face—but it makes the book look overwhelming even before you start reading. Swiss publisher Lars Müller usually specializes in immaculate volumes about subjects such as Josef Müller-Brockmann, Bruno Munari, R. Buckminster Fuller, and the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface. When I inquired about The Face of Human Rights in a London design bookshop that normally stocks the publisher’s list, the sales assistant wasn’t sure whether they would order it; it might not fit their clientele’s interests.

As I wrestled with the book, I kept coming back to a central question: Who is the intended reader? In many ways it is an impressive feat, but is this treatment the right way to make a connection? Although 500 photographs take up the majority of its pages, the tome still has space for a mass of text. It could never be dismissed as a coffee-table book. The photographs are presented in a serious documentary manner on pages no bigger than those of a typical hardback novel. Nothing about The Face of Human Rights invites you to wallow in the visual material for its own sake—and this would hardly be seemly given the subject matter. On the other hand, such an urgent topic should be instantly involving. But all too often the book left me feeling uncomfortably detached: its size and design work against the content.

It took humanity thousands of years to formulate the concept of human rights at an international level. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the horrors of the Second World War, on December 10, 1948. It prohibited torture and arbitrary detention, and asserted the right to a fair trial and to freedom of opinion, assembly, and religion, as well as the rights to work, food, health, and education. The declaration wasn’t legally binding, but it became a crucial starting point for protection that is now enshrined in many legally binding human-rights conventions.

In his introduction, coeditor Walter Kälin, professor of international law at the University of Berne, notes that the legal breakthrough for human-rights treaties came as recently as the 1990s. Most countries have now ratified at least one convention. Yet he expresses concern that the continuing instances of genocide, torture, and oppression of minorities are signs that international efforts to safeguard human rights are not working. “The extent to which fundamental rights are infringed, on every continent, is indeed shocking,” he writes. “Legal history shows that it takes centuries rather than decades for new legal concepts to take full effect.”

The Face of Human Rights abounds with alarming statistics, though you sometimes have to dig to find them. A senior Chinese legislator suggested in 2004 that China executes nearly 10,000 people a year (Amnesty International figures account for only about 700). An estimated 15-20,000 people are killed or maimed annually by land mines—and 80 million of the devices remain in the ground. As many as 1.3 billion people worldwide, 70 percent of them women, live on less than $1 a day. Seventy-three million working children are under ten years old. People-trafficking rings move about 700,000 women and children across international borders every year.

These facts are underpinned by a host of quotations from the likes of Plato, Voltaire, Proust, Freud, and Orwell, along with countless (too many) extracts from covenants, charters, protocols, reports, legal rulings, and statements by bodies such as the UN, UNICEF, and the U.S. Supreme Court. But it is the human dimension that makes these issues so painfully vivid—and a lot more could have been made of this: stories such as that of 27-year-old Samia Sarwar, murdered in Pakistan by a gunman hired by her family when she sought a divorce; of Zainab, an African girl infibulated at the age of eight.

At a time when the status of photographs as an accurate depiction of reality is increasingly uncertain, the editors show a pleasing faith in photography’s power to tell the truth. Many of the images might seem unremarkable in content or composition, but they present a rounded picture of everyday cooperation that more sensationalistic news agendas usually exclude. It’s a shame that the unnecessarily systematic sizing and placement of images so often blunts their impact. When the editors do include a disturbing photograph, it certainly has force. In Somalia we see an emaciated child crumpled in the dirt, unable to walk to the nutrition center. The mother stands a few feet away, too weak perhaps to offer any help, only her legs visible in the picture, while a soldier carrying a rifle saunters along the nearby road.

The Face of Human Rights is at its most trenchant when it matches pictures with quotations. In Louisiana eight rotund members of the Rolls Royce Club pose next to their vehicles. Oscar Wilde supplies the commentary: “The recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.” On a hillside above a camp, four Kurdish refugee girls pore over their schoolbooks, looking contented despite their plight. “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read,” Mary McLeod Bethune once wrote.

Here you get a sense of the polemical power the book might have achieved if it had been more tightly edited and journalistically focused. One can understand the editors’ desire to be definitive. I still found myself thinking that less would have been more. Some unfortunate typographic decisions also get in the way. The captions run up the sides of the photos, making essential information laborious to extract. Helvetica would appear to be almost an article of faith for this publisher, but its use for most of the text imparts the detached mood of a technical manual to a subject that should radiate conviction and warmth, if not anger. Many pages are overloaded with blocks of small, dense, sans-serif text that requires perseverance to read.

On the day I finished this review, human rights were once again in the news. In its annual report the New York-based Human Rights Watch notes that the torture and degrading treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay have undermined the moral authority of the United States as a defender of human rights and an opponent of terrorism. Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib inevitably feature in this book. These shameful cases are clearly setbacks, but we have to keep moving forward. As Kälin concludes, “Human rights are not a gift but a task for all of us.” The Face of Human Rights has been assembled with the best possible intentions, and the subject deserves the widest readership. Unfortunately this ponderous volume seems too severe, too daunting, and too costly to achieve that.

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