7 Sep 2007

in May/June, 10 people enrolled in an "Introduction to Digital Photography" class at Johnshaven Primary School. And while for many of them the course may well have remained just that –an introduction - for Geraldine McGuiness of Milnes Wynd it opened a window on the struggle for human rights and a meeting with an important member of the South African government.

Her story begins way back in 1992 when, on a short visit to the South African city of Durban, Gerry was astonished one afternoon to be faced with a wall completely covered with murals, the work of various African community artists, strikingly depicting the many rights which all human beings should expect to receive, including the right to equality, freedom of opinion and religion and the right to life and liberty. Working as she was then as a human resources manager for a multicultural inner city London local authority Gerry considered the visual imagery to possess "such exuberance, emotion, power and influence" that she took over 30 photographs with the intention of studying them individually when she got back home.

The developed pictures were considered relevant to the council’s diversity learning programme but pressure of other work and staff changes meant that the momentum was lost even before Gerry moved to Johnshaven in 1997.

Three years later a conversation with a Johnshaven artist, Morag Smith, resulted in the photos being enlarged and posters and transparencies created from selected images and, in their A4 format, were given their first public viewing when Gerry was asked to address a monthly meeting of the Guild in the Johnshaven Church Hall on the topic of disability discrimination. The portfolio was then stored away in a box in Gerry’s loft.

And there it lay, forgotten and gathering dust for seven years until Aberdeenshire Council’s Community Learning took up the Community Council’s suggestion of running a digital photography class and Gerry decided to put her name down for it.

Looking for suitable photos to work on, she recalled those of the mural and before long and, encouraged by the course tutor, Tom McPherson, Gerry was able to use her newly learned but still "elementary" skills to digitalise them.

By this time she was a volunteer worker with Grampian Opportunities in Inverurie who had engaged another local charity, Computers and Integration, to produce on CD a visual recreation, "Walk This Way", of the actual 1992 UDHR wall.

Again the story might have ended here, no more than an interesting exercise in digital photography, had not coincidence taken over in a big way.

Gerry had discovered that there was no full record of the images on the by now crumbling wall but there was a strong desire in Durban to restore them: 2007 is the European Year of Equality and Human Rights and she had made contact with a north-east artist, Alex Flett, Director of the Kirkudbright International Arts Festival which just happened to be featuring a celebration of human rights culture ranging from art to poetry and culture in July.

The Tate Gallery had pulled out at the last minute and Gerry’s original photographs, supported by the digital CD production, took its place to form one of the key exhibits at the month long internationally acclaimed event.

Invited to the official opening, Gerry was asked back at the end of the month to meet Dr Mabuza, the South African High Commissioner to the UK and, over an informal, but emotional, supper presented her with a personal portfolio of internationally significant art and human rights’ history which had seemed lost for ever but which was about to be returned to her grateful homeland.

Although it is now some time since those hectic days of July, Gerry still has some difficulty in taking in all that happened.

He said: "I do feel privileged to have been involved at such close quarters with the movement for human rights because the struggle matches my own philosophy of life and it was also an honour to have met such a high ranking representative of the South African government.

"It was wonderful, too, that my next door neighbours and friends, Alex and Alison Wallace were able to be with me for part of the Festival and to meet with Terry-Anne Stephenson, the artist who organised the community murals.

"However, an unexpected moral to draw from the events is – join up for the next digital photography class in Johnshaven, you never know where it will take you!"

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