Magnum Photos, LensCulture, Souvid Datta & Allegations of Exploitation
Magnum and LensCulture are running a photography competition that gives exposure to the winner (entry fees are required). This part is unremarkable; however, the photograph used to promote the competition showed a 16 year old trafficked ‘sex worker’ (nicknamed Beauty) being raped by an adult male ‘customer’ in a Bengal brothel. Beauty’s face was shown in the photograph, while the man’s face was concealed (by virtue of the shot being taken from behind him, as he lay on top of her). This has resulted in a storm of criticism directed at LensCulture, Magnum and the photographer (Souvid Datta). Petapixel’s article captures much of the outrage very clearly, as does this Twitter feed. I won’t be sharing the actual image here, for reasons that will become clear.
On the surface of it, this episode is horrendous and here are the key criticisms that have been levelled:
- The photographer is alleged to have ignored well established ethical guidelines for the protection of children.
- Magnum and LensCulture are using an exploitative and unethical image to solicit fees for entering a photography competition.
At first, I thought the same. I was shocked that such an image would ‘make the airwaves’, but things aren’t always as simple as they first appear are they? Having read through various comments and statements on the web, I am going to look at alternative perspectives. I am not asking for a lynching here, but instead suggesting that the ‘quick outrage’ may have left a few important stones unturned.
The first thing we need to look at when condemning anyone or anything is to establish a few basic facts! What actually took place?
a) Let’s start with intent: the publication of the photograph in the first place. Here, it is important to note that this was done against Souvid Datta’s wishes. He submitted the photograph to a juried competition and ticked the box that asked for the image not to be shown publicly. Here is a quote from Datta’s public statement (via Facebook):
“Specifically, I asked for this entry not to be shown outside the judging process [a box one can tick while applying], and certainly not for competition promotion without any context given”
It might be possible to take comments elsewhere in his statement to mean that he might have published this photograph at some point in the future in a different context. However, let’s not go down the road of condemning a person for something that hasn’t happened and we’d only be guessing at (circumstances and context matter in this case, as will become clearer later). At least LensCulture has recognised that they made a “serious mistake in judgment” by publishing the photograph in the manner they did. This could refer to the fact that the photographer stated that they should not do so, or the belief that they published an inappropriate photo in relation to the below.
b) Child protection: Many people have stated that Souvid Datta’s actions contravene UN guidelines for reporting on children (a summarised version can be found here, along with a link to the full PDF). Having read through them, I believe that they offer a fair and balanced set of guidelines (and this is why UN documents of this kind are so commonly referred to and used by third party organisations) that would be difficult to argue against. However, what they are not is an inflexible straightjacket. They do make provisions for unusual situations in a number of key areas. Let’s look at a few sections of text that I have copied from the wider guidelines and pasted below:
“In interviewing and reporting on children, special attention is to be paid to each child’s right to privacy and confidentiality, to have their opinions heard, to participate in decisions affecting them and to be protected from harm and retribution, including the potential of harm and retribution.
The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including over advocacy for children’s issues and the promotion of child rights.
When trying to determine the best interests of a child, the child’s right to have their views taken into account are to be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.
Those closest to the child’s situation and best able to assess it are to be consulted about the political, social and cultural ramifications of any reportage.
Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as:
a. A victim of sexual abuse or exploitation,
b. A perpetrator of physical or sexual abuse,
c. HIV positive, or living with AIDS, unless the child, a parent or a guardian gives fully informed consent,
d. Charged or convicted of a crime.
[however] In certain cases, using a child’s identity – their name and/or recognizable image – is in the child’s best interests. However, when the child’s identity is used, they must still be protected against harm and supported through any stigmatization or reprisals.
Some examples of these special cases are:
a. When a child initiates contact with the reporter, wanting to exercise their right to freedom of expression and their right to have their opinion heard.”
I have underlined and made bold specific sections of text above because they appear to be highly relevant in this case. Now we can look at Datta’s statement and see how well the two fit together:
“After a month of shadowing Beauty in the brothels of Kolkata and living doors away from her, it was she who came to me, questioning why it was that I always left her room when a client came by. If I truly wanted to communicate her situation, and show her reality, she said, then I would have to be in the room to witness how she treats clients and how they treat her…
….But In the end, regardless of my views on those issues what I fundamentally realised was that this was Beauty’s story to tell above all, not mine. And for Beauty, a woman who had suffered years of being robbed autonomy and self-expression as a child, this was without doubt a brave move to take control of her own narrative, to express her own vision of her story. She asked me to photograph this interaction – fully aware of my intention to publish this story widely in an attempt to create constructive awareness. This proved to be a collaboration that in her eyes best showed what she deemed a crucially important aspect of her daily reality and story.”
This comment in Datta’s statement drew particular ire: “Beauty, at 16, functioned as more of a responsible and accountable adult than many people I know”. However, if the full section of text is processed in conjunction with all of the above information, surely it doesn’t sound nearly so presumptuous, but rather turns the tables on those seeking to protect Beauty from Datta’s supposed exploitation.
“Beauty, at 16, functioned as more of a responsible and accountable adult than many people I know – crucially holding herself to those standards too. Her participation in this project was fierce and well-informed, and to say otherwise, especially having not met her, is deeply paternalistic and presumptuous. In evaluating my role as an adult obligated to protect children who need protection along side my role as a journalist obligated to amplify the voices of those who need and agree to be heard – the decision that lay before me was a clear one.”
Let’s also remember that, while not an adult when the photo was taken (she was 16) Beauty would almost certainly be considered old enough to expect her wishes to be respected in many legal settings. As I understand it, decisions relating to (self) responsibility are rarely based on numerical age, but the maturity of the individual as assessed by the relevant authorities. In Beauty’s situation, the relevant authorities clearly weren’t helping much. Is it a great leap to imagine that a 16 year old girl might have well thought out and powerful convictions on the subject under discussion (her own awful predicament)? I know firsthand how important it can be for people in dire situations to be seen and heard. Isn’t it ‘paternalistic and presumptuous’ for others to determine outcomes that contravene the stated wishes of Beauty? It’s hard to imagine a situation where a person might feel more strongly about being heard.
Another criticism is that Beauty’s face did not need to be shown to bring attention to the issue of sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. Technically, this is true; however, this argument assumes that the photographers sole mission was to advocate on the larger issue of sexual exploitation. I have little doubt that this larger mission was hugely important to him, but we cannot forget that there was a second one: to give voice and expression to Beauty, in accordance with her wishes. It seems that some commentators are much more interested in the ‘general argument’ than the specific case concerned. My comments assume that what Datta has told us in his statement is accurate; however, there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Shouldn’t we therefore afford him ‘innocent until proven guilty’ treatment? Who are we to say that he should have refused to tell her story in the way he did? What would this ‘closed door’ have meant to an already powerless Beauty?
Child exploitation of this kind is vile, but surely the target of vilification should not be Datta. It certainly appears that LensCulture made a huge mistake publishing the photograph without consent, but has Magnum Photos and LensCulture behaved inappropriately in other ways?
Perhaps the key issue here is that LensCulture and Magnum Photos have used an image with immense ‘shock factor’ to publicise a competition which appears to generate revenue. I don’t profess to know the financial reality of this endeavour and it is very possible that the fees solicited do no more than pay for the running of the contest. If we assume that Beauty was old enough to give informed and mature consent regarding the taking of the photograph, are they still responsible for behaving inappropriately in terms of the image content? Isn’t it then difficult to consider it inappropriate if the photograph itself is a manifestation of Beauty’s informed and mature wishes? The sensationalist Facebook headline of “one of the best opportunities for photographers around the world to get recognition for their work. Don’t miss out!” certainly feels in very poor taste, but the idea that they have ‘commodified rape’ is a very large leap indeed. Would they be commodifying war if they showed a combat photo? Of course not. Surely we keep ending right back at ‘what was the purpose of the photo in the first place’?
Perhaps we can reach a verdict of sorts by asking one simple question: what did/does Beauty want?
I don’t personally feel that I have the right to wave my own personal rulebook in the air and deny her a voice. I don’t have the right to do that on any basis, regardless of how benevolent and noble the intention. I will also politely suggest that nobody else has the right to do so either. By doing so, are we not engaging in an act of profoundly arrogant condescension? Are we not assuming that she did not know what she wanted, without being there, speaking with her, knowing her plight, or knowing anything about her? Are we not also assuming the photographer has somehow deceived us, or at least exploited her? I’m uncomfortable with this, because far too many assumptions are being made while plenty of stones are being thrown. I think Datta deserves better and so does every other photographer, journalist or decent person who takes a huge risk to deliver a controversial message. As for Magnum, they’re a photojournalistic agency. If we accept that Beauty wanted the issue – and her predicament – to be exposed for the world to see, isn’t a powerful photo agency with incredible connections not where you’d hope the photo would end up? Yes, the timing and mechanism has been a complete mess (the photographer’s project should have been published at the time of his choosing, when he would have been able to provide vital ethical context), but the irony is that the controversy may actually bring more attention to the issue than might otherwise have been the case. At least then all the stones being hurled in swift condemnation might contribute towards a more positive outcome.
I will leave you with one final question: considering the hammering directed at Souvid Datta, what position would we be in if nobody ever again agreed to act as messenger? I can only guess that Datta thought long and hard about even submitting the image to LensCulture. I imagine any future publication would have been tinged with fear about the possible reactions. These are the reactions that, in future, prevent good men from doing something.
P.S. I did not publish the image for one simple reason: the photographer did consent for it to be made public.