Yvonne Ng in Conversation With the Metropolitan Archivist
Yvonne Ng is an audiovisual archivist and has been part of the WITNESS team since 2009. In collaboration with WITNESS regional leads, Yvonne trains and supports partners on collecting, managing, and preserving video documentation for human rights advocacy and evidence. Yvonne develops training resources related to archiving and preservation, such as the groundbreaking Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video. Yvonne also manages WITNESS’s own archive of human rights video.
Metropolitan Archivist: How did you arrive at audiovisual archiving, and to archiving human rights documentation, specifically? Can you talk about how your training prepared you for your current position? What things have you learned since that surprised you? How has your path/work changed since embarking on your career?
Yvonne Ng: I was first introduced to audiovisual archiving as a graduate student in Cinema Studies at York University in Toronto and through working on a film preservation project at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. During that time, I also interned at Oddball Films in San Francisco. I eventually went on to pursue an MA in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program at New York University. When I started at MIAP, I was primarily interested in film preservation, so one unexpected outcome that I’m grateful for was that the program introduced me to the importance of video and digital preservation.
My introduction to human rights documentation came through my work at WITNESS. Over the years, my role has shifted from day-to-day archiving work on WITNESS’s media collection to managing a program to support our partners on their archiving efforts and to create accessible resources about archiving aimed at human rights activists. This transition happened gradually, emerging out of the needs we were hearing from partners and WITNESS’s strategic priorities, although it was not a role that I really had a background in. I’ve done a lot of learning on the job.
I’ve also been fortunate to be involved in various community archiving projects outside of work, such as the Community Archiving Workshop and XFR Collective. It’s also been really helpful to be active in professional groups like the Association of Moving Image Archivists. The audiovisual archiving community has always been a great source of friendship and support for me.
Metropolitan Archivist: WITNESS’s history dates back to the early 1990s and was influenced by two factors that have continued to resonate in our current context: development of small consumer camcorders, and the 1991 attack of Rodney King by LAPD officers, which was itself documented with a camcorder by a bystander. How has WITNESS evolved in response to changes in technology, and to historical events since its inception? Are there particular inflection points that have had an outsized impact on your operations and approach to archiving?
Yvonne Ng: WITNESS has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and we continue to evolve. I think some of the key inflection points that have impacted the way we work include the transition to file-based media, the introduction of smartphone cameras, and the rise of social media and online video. These social and technological changes created new opportunities for pursuing human rights accountability, such as online open-source investigations and the availability of video for legal evidence, but also big challenges like content moderation and verification of online video.
We are also anticipating the changes to come, such as the emergence of AI and machine learning technologies, which create new opportunities for working with data, but also new threats like synthetic media (deepfakes) and surveillance. We’re also starting to explore the possibilities of web3 or decentralized web, and what positive and negative impacts it might have on human rights. For example, human rights defenders might benefit from employing distributed file storage or peer-to-peer sharing and communication technologies to work more resiliently and autonomously from centralized service providers. At the same time, there are new security and privacy concerns that will need to be addressed in this new ecosystem.
Of course, all of these changes have fundamentally affected how we work and what we work on, and our approach to archiving.
Metropolitan Archivist: You’ve been working at WITNESS since 2009, just two years after the release of the first iPhone and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones. Since then, there have been many social movements globally and in the United States that have coalesced through the use of smartphones and social media applications. What has it been like to observe that arc from your vantage point? How has this influenced your work?
Yvonne Ng: It’s been amazing to be part of WITNESS during this time. The idea of using video to document human rights violations has grown from a niche tactic to something people almost instinctively think to do when they see something. Back in the 1990s, we trained people to use cameras, edit videos, or craft advocacy messages in short documentaries. Now we train on a broader range of topics like digital security, ethics, curation, and archiving. We also train on “video as evidence” aimed at providing guidance to activists, but also to lawyers; in many ways, institutions and evidentiary standards are still catching up to the outside world and how video is used today.
One key challenge is that repressive regimes have also caught on to the power that people can harness through these communication networks. Internet shutdowns — which can mean throttling, specific site blockages, or full blackouts — are becoming normalized as a tactic to limit expression and information, especially during politically sensitive times like coups, protests, and elections. We’ve been developing guidance around how to continue documenting with video during a shutdown, and working with the global #KeepItOn coalition in solidarity with people experiencing shutdowns.
Metropolitan Archivist: We’ve recently seen many crises unfold in close succession, from the COVID-19 pandemic, to attacks against the AAPI community and continued police violence against Black communities, as well as an attempted insurrection in our own country. Preserving evidentiary value is important in order for documentation to be legally actionable and for those responsible to be held accountable. This has become increasingly important as politically motivated misinformation has proliferated on online platforms, in some cases inflaming violence. Do you see your work as a counterpoint to the spread of misinformation? What role does advocacy play?
Yvonne Ng: Misinformation is a significant global threat. In 2018, we held a series of convenings in Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, and the US to understand concerns about misinformation and to prioritize solutions from a global perspective. Some of the biggest issues that participants identified were the increased risks to community leaders and activists; the undermining of evidence, truth, and public trust; overwhelming the fact-checking capacities of journalists; and violence and confusion that can be caused by a “digital wildfire” spread of false information. The solutions that participants prioritized included increasing media literacy, making deepfake detection tools, like those used by media forensics experts, more accessible, and ensuring that social media platforms do their part in preventing the spread of misinformation.
Most recently, we held a convening in Nigeria last year with a number of cross-disciplinary West African stakeholders. Participants highlighted the need to prioritize non-technological and offline methods for combating misinformation. This kind of people-centric solution involves trust building and coordinating local “verifiers” to transfer knowledge and guide media literacy in ways that are familiar and accessible to their communities.
Metropolitan Archivist: In light of the social upheavals that have taken place in our country and globally in recent years, has there been an increased interest in and/or demand for your work and WITNESS’s resources? What opportunities and/or obstacles have surfaced in these circumstances?
Yvonne Ng: We’ve seen an uptick in engagements and downloads of our materials, especially during key moments such as the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and the Myanmar coup in 2021. It helped that when these moments occurred, we already had many relevant resources ready and available. We always strive to make sure our resources respond to identified needs, and that they are relevant and accessible to audiences, including through translation and other localizations. It’s a balance between reacting to major incidents where people need rapid response and solidarity, and creating resources in a more proactive and intentional way to address ongoing human rights documentation needs and issues that are under the radar.
Metropolitan Archivist: Your position oversees the preservation of human rights documentation and maintaining its evidentiary value, critical work that necessarily exposes you to information and documentation of trauma and violence. How do you negotiate care for yourself and others in this context? Are there strategies you’ve needed to learn to maintain healthy boundaries? How do you help others understand and navigate risks?
Yvonne Ng: I don’t know if I have a complete answer for this. I’m fortunate that these issues can be talked about transparently within our organization, even if we don’t have everything figured out. There are concrete ways that WITNESS as a workplace tries to support our well-being, such as flex time and generous leave policies. I find balance from the negative aspects of this work in the joy and inspiration I get from collaborating with my co-workers and with our partners, and creating things together that help others. I work from a physically safer and more comfortable place than some colleagues or partners, so I try to always keep that in mind in terms of my security practices and my expectations.
Metropolitan Archivist: What advice do you have for individual citizen witnesses and archivists who would like to be more involved?
Yvonne Ng: I think it’s useful to pause and think before taking an action. For example, this could mean making sure that it’s safe for you or others before you film or share a video publicly, or seeing who you can learn from or collaborate with on a project before you reinvent the wheel. This is related to working in solidarity with others. I’ve also learned that it’s important to move at an organic pace that is appropriate to building trust with my collaborators and achieving the goal, rather than following any externally imposed timeline. Avoiding burnout is also important, which I think can be helped by keeping an eye on longer-term outcomes rather than just jumping from crisis to crisis, although sometimes you have to deal with those head-on.