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Global charity comes under fire for using vulnerable victims in pictures

This news post is 7 months old

Some 10,000 images have been deemed "problematic"

A global aid charity is reviewing how it uses pictures to communicate after controversy over the image of a 16-year-old rape victim in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported itself to the Charity Commission through a serious incident report after widespread criticism both internally and externally for using the girl’s image.

The charity had already begin a process in 2021 to identify what it termed “problematic images” in its archive and has so far identified around 10,000.

It emerged last year that a number of MSF's photographs were being sold by well-known photo libraries, many of which depicted identifiable and vulnerable people taken at its facilities, including rape survivors, and sexually abused, naked, and dying children.

MSF itself did not sell these pictures on or profit from their use.

In a blog, the charity said: “Photography is a powerful way to inform, provoke and create a sense of empathy. But as a medical organisation, our primary duty must be to protect the privacy, dignity and agency of patients in our care. The medical principle of ‘doing no harm’ cannot be sidelined when depicting people in their most vulnerable moments, in order to raise global awareness and funds.

“We must acknowledge that we have not always lived up to this principle. How did images of suffering bodies become so ubiquitous and to what extent has MSF contributed to normalising the pain of others? Did we forget to ask ourselves: how would I feel if the person in this photograph was my son, my father, my sister?”

It continues: “This excessive display of suffering is both unjustifiable and unnecessary. As a global NGO, and as individuals, we must reflect on how our worldview and choices are influenced by historical power dynamics, and to what extent they have created deep-rooted biases.”  

Benjamin Chesterton, production director at film production company Duckrabbit has been raising awareness of the charity selling photos taken at its medical facilities.

He also accuses charities and photo libraries of racism in the way they depict black victims.

Last year he tweeted: “It's 26 days since I first tweeted that a 14 year old child sought help at a @MSF sexual violence clinic hours after a gang-rape. And ended up for sale on a stock library. £375.”

Chesterton said: “The most significant issue at play is a massive failure of medical ethics in facilitating the exploitation of their patients. 

“Their business models, which includes allowing photographers to sell photos of fully identifiable sexually abused children, a criminal offence in the UK, presents a clear risk to children of colour. It’s completely immoral. 

“I would imagine that if the photos were taken in Europe they’d be under investigation by multiple agencies for breaching GDPR law and failing the most basic of medical ethics (patient confidentiality) as well as serious child protection issues.”

MSF added: "The outcomes of these internal and external consultations will be analysed in 2023 and will serve as the basis for clear decisions on how we produce, store, commission and disseminate images. Inevitably, there will be difficult conversations and disagreements.

“However, there is a consensus on the fact that the dignity and integrity of our patients should prevail over all other considerations. Even if it means snapping and sharing less often.”