Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has removed photographs of a teenage rape survivor from its Web site after criticism that the images were unethical and racist.
MSF took down two photographs of a 16-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) who was gang-raped by three armed men after photographers, human rights advocates and lawyers condemned the images on Twitter.
A spokesperson said the medical non-governmental organization (NGO) accepted that it had been “a misjudgement ... 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 DR Congo’s Ituri Province.
They came under fire after Benjamin Chesterton, director of UK film production company Duckrabbit, criticized their portrayal of black African women and girls who had survived sexual assault as racist and dehumanizing.
MSF initially defended the project, but after continued condemnation from Chesterton, who has previously worked for MSF in DR Congo, it removed five photographs, including two of the girl, from an article on its Web site that also mentions her first name.
Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, who took the photographs, said MSF had removed the images without informing her.
Tavakolian said that MSF had selected the photographs 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 Crack — which she said reflected the fact that many rape survivors in DR Congo 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,” Tavakolian 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 the Islamic State group, 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,” Minwalla said.
“You’re putting her at risk of retaliation, as well as stigma and shame,” she said.
Martha Tadesse, an Ethiopian photographer who also criticized the photographs on Twitter, said there was a racist double-standard in the treatment of black African survivors of sexual violence.
It was inconceivable that similar photographs 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.”
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