Médecins Sans Frontières pulls images of teenage rape survivor after outcry

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Régis Duvignau/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Régis Duvignau/Reuters

Médecins Sans Frontières has removed photographs of a teenage rape survivor from its website after criticism that the images were unethical and racist.

MSF took down two photos of a 16-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who was gang-raped by three armed men afterphotographers, activists and human rights lawyers condemned the images on Twitter.

A spokesperson said the medical NGO accepted that it had been “a misjudgment … to publish identifiable pictures of a minor who had been through this experience”.

He said the orphaned girl, who had been raped two months before the photoshoot, consented to being photographed, but that MSF had decided that was insufficient justification to publish the pictures “considering her age and the kind of trauma she had gone through”.

The photographs, which show the girl lying on a bench after receiving treatment at an MSF hospital, were taken in Drodro, a refugee camp in Ituri province. They came under fire after Benjamin Chesterton, the director of the UK film production company Duckrabbit, criticised their portrayal of black African women and girls who had survived sexual assault as racist and dehumanising.

MSF initially defended the project but after continued condemnation from Chesterton, who has previously worked for the NGO in DRC, it removed five photos, including two of the girl, from an article on its website that also mentions her first name.

The Iranian Magnum photographer Newsha Tavakolian, who took the photos, said MSF had removed the images without informing her.

Tavakolian said MSF had selected the photos for publication: “They also refrained from publicly explaining the reasons for making this decision, nor did they highlight the fact that I was never told not to take images of minors. It simply was never discussed,” she said. ”

She defended the project – Ituri, a Glimmer through the Crackwhich she said reflected the fact that many rape survivors in DRC were teenagers. She “isn’t a ‘typical’ 16-year-old, living a child’s life in a world of comfort. No, she lives in east Congo, in an area where rape is an instrument of war,” she said.

The MSF spokesman accepted that the NGO’s guidelines for photographers and filmmakers on how to handle such cases, in which a minor who has survived sexual violence does not have parents or guardians, were inadequate.

“That is why we are working to revise them to provide greater clarity on issues around images of identifiable minors who have suffered significant trauma,” he said.

Sherizaan Minwalla, a human rights lawyer who works with Yazidi survivors of sexual enslavement by Isis, contested MSF’s view that the girl had been able to give informed consent.

“Even if she was dying to tell everyone that she was gang-raped so she can help other people, they need to be able to say she’s a minor, the perpetrators are still at large, we’re not acting in the best interests of the victim if we move forward,” she said adding that MSF’s guidelines needed to be strengthened to avoid exploiting minors. “You’re putting her at risk of retaliation, as well as stigma and shame,” she said.

Martha Tadesse, an Ethiopian photographer who also criticised the photos on Twitter, said there was a racist double-standard in the treatment of black African survivors of sexual violence. It was inconceivable that similar photos of a white European or US minor would have been published, she said.

“You can’t just smash their childhood like that because they are a black child,” she said. “Don’t give me this black trauma porn, making it, ‘Oh, Congo is different’. It’s gaslighting.”

An internal statement signed two years ago by 1,000 current and former MSF staff accused the NGO of being institutionally racist and reinforcing colonialism and white supremacy in its humanitarian work.

Magnum Photos completed a safeguarding review of its archive of more than 1 million images last year after accusations it made photographs available that may show the sexual exploitation of minors.

A spokesperson for the agency said: “We are satisfied that Newsha’s photos and account of her trip to DRC with MSF are in line with Magnum’s code of ethics and that, given the specific context, Newsha acted with consideration to the people that she photographed.”

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