Doctors Without Borders condemned for having “benefited from images of exploitation” | Global development
Doctors, photographers, human rights activists and academics have written to Médecins Sans Frontières raising concerns that the medical charity is exploiting the trauma of vulnerable patients to promote its work.
In an open letter to MSF’s international president and board of directors, nearly 50 signatories, including current and former staff, say the humanitarian organization has commissioned, published and authorized the sale of photographs that endanger and exploit vulnerable black people, including children.
The letter highlights several examples for sale in image banks, including that of a 14-year-old girl photographed in an MSF clinic as she sought HIV preventive medication and treatment for internal injuries after to have been gang-raped.
Other images include a portrait of a West African boy crying while suffering from cholera in an MSF clinic, available as a canvas wall print.
The letter comes after MSF, which provides medical services to people in developing countries and conflict zones, removed two photos from its website of a teenage rape survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to following criticism that the images were unethical and racist.
Signatories to the letter, curated by Benjamin Chesterton, director of British film production company Duckrabbit, include MSF South Africa board member Spencer Botolo and media award-winning photojournalist Smita Sharma of Amnesty for documenting child trafficking. for sexual abuse in India and Bangladesh.
Another signatory, Dr Hassaan Zahid, founder of Decolonize MSF, which campaigns against discrimination within the NGO, said some staff had expressed concern in recent years “at the disproportionate use of black children and browns in photographs to raise funds”.
Zahid, a former MSF employee in Karachi, Pakistan, added: “MSF’s whole business model is based on selling human misery, which is part of its colonial heritage. As long as this business model remains the same, we will continue to steal patient dignity in the name of fundraising.
He said concerns have been raised that some Western staff who organize photo shoots in developing countries often ignore the critical opinions of their local colleagues.
Zahid said MSF should stop allowing the sale of photographs taken while on mission for the NGO.
Some MSF staff had raised concerns internally about the DRC photos, which clearly identified a 16-year-old girl who had been raped by three armed men.
An article on the Souk MSF website, a platform for staff to discuss the NGO’s operations, criticized the photo report by Newsha Tavakolian, an Iranian Magnum photographer, for “offering[ing] a problematic vision, both of the DRC, of sexual violence and of the women who suffer it”.
Tavakolian said MSF selected the photos for publication and deleted them without informing him. “They also refrained from publicly explaining the reasons for this decision, nor from highlighting the fact that I was never told not to take images of minors,” she said. “It was just never discussed.”
Jacob Burns, director of studies at the Center for Reflection on Humanitarian Action and Knowledge), a body of the MSF Foundation which evaluates and analyzes the work of the association, said on Twitter“These photos and their framing have been strongly criticized by many colleagues. Posting identifiable photos of a teenage rape survivor is clearly indefensible, and the problems with this project don’t end there.
An MSF spokesperson said its work with the photographers was aimed at raising awareness of under-reported crises. “MSF does not profit from these image sales. In most of the agreements we have with photographers, it is understood that they will retain copyright and may publish or sell their stories and images. The aim is to highlight overlooked crises as widely as possible – as well as the stories of those involved, where they consent.
But he added: “Unfortunately some images, especially those collected a long time ago, fall far short of adequate standards in terms of dignified representation of patients or communities. We intend to fix this problem.
“We will also seek to limit the commercial sale of these media assets and ensure appropriate access restrictions on their use.”
Tavakolian added, “I will continue to work on sexual violence because it is very close to my heart, and I have told this particular story in a way that I find ethical.”