Thursday, July 1, 2010

Photography and Sexual Violence

This spring I wrote a media policy document for HEAL Africa, a Congolese led program based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, that provides evidence-based holistic medical and psychosocial healing for the survivors of a decade of war in Eastern Congo. HEAL Africa's Heal My People program is achieving incredible results in treating survivors of the systematic sexual violence that has been waged on the local population. Heal My People works to walk survivors through a process of physical and psychological recovery and then integrate them into communities where they are welcomed and embraced as equal and valued members. Below is an adapted version of that text.

Ethics, Issues and Responsibilities in Depicting Survivors of Sexual Violence

By Aric Mayer
June 2010

Survivors of rape and gender-based violence contribute their names, faces and stories to media productions at considerable personal risk. Rape is a trauma with a high potential for stigmatization that is easily facilitated with internet based mass media. Media producers have an obligation to do everything possible to do no harm, while minimizing potential for harm and maximizing the potential for good.

With the recent revolutions in media technology, humanitarian agencies are finding themselves in positions with increased pressure to publish their own stories and produce their own content. Producers of documentary and journalism media are also increasingly relying on the same humanitarian agencies both for access and information. These opportunities and responsibilities are creating new possibilities for agencies to integrate their media strategies into their overall organizational goals.

What follows is an introductory examination of the principal issues and problems that must be addressed from the perspective of an agency whose primary mission is to heal survivors of sexual violence within it’s care, and with an understanding that photography and video are highly evocative media with strong potentials both towards helping and towards exploitation. In each case the potential for harm is explored with the hope of avoiding it in practice. In situations where helping is the goal, the specific outcomes should be carefully targeted and all media strategies built into their service.

Sexual Violence and Identity Disclosure

"Rape is best characterized as torture that uses sex as a weapon. Like a torturer, the rapist uses sexual acts to dominate, humiliate, and terrorize the victim. To deny the role of sexual humiliation in rape is to deny victims the horror of what they have been through. As long as people have any sense of privacy about sexual acts and the human body, rape will, therefore, carry a stigma, not necessarily a stigma that blames the victim for what happened to her, but a stigma that links her name irrevocably with an act of intimate humiliation.

To name [or picture] a rape victim is to guarantee that whenever somebody hears her name [or sees her picture], that somebody will picture her in the act of being sexually tortured. To expose a rape victim to this without her consent is nothing short of punitive."
--Helen Benedict [1]

The issues brought up in photographing rape survivors are complex and potentially harmful to the subjects. The ways that photography, video and film function as representative media, and the economies and markets within which they are funded, produced, distributed, achieve recognition and ultimately widespread public exposure can mirror in some ways the trauma of sexual violence.

The possibilities for increasing the trauma are significant. There is the imposition of another person’s vision upon one’s personage, the loss of control over one’s likeness, the potential for permanent and public association with one’s trauma, the problem of consent when one is asked for it by someone in a position of power, and the commodification of one’s own suffering. This is an effort to address these potentials and mitigate the possibilities for harm.

The Belmont Report

Created and published by the National Institute of Health in the United States, the Belmont Report, in it’s own words, “…is a statement of basic ethical principles and guidelines that should assist in resolving the ethical problems that surround the conduct of research with human subjects.”

The Belmont report offers a set of ethical guidelines that are particularly relevant to media depictions of rape survivors within the context of sexual violence. Because rape is a trauma that carries a high potential for public stigmatization and exploitation, ethical guidelines for research in the behavioral sciences are particularly relevant to any journalistic process of depiction. 

Since potential subjects are approached specifically because of their trauma, and media depiction is potentially linked to a permanent and public future association with their trauma, I recommend the application of best practices for behavioral science research to journalistic and documentary research. Below are selected quotes from the report.
Basic Ethical Principles:

Respect for Persons. -- Respect for persons incorporates at least two ethical convictions: first, that individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection. The principle of respect for persons thus divides into two separate moral requirements: the requirement to acknowledge autonomy and the requirement to protect those with diminished autonomy.
Beneficence. -- Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being. Such treatment falls under the principle of beneficence. The term ”beneficence” is often understood to cover acts of kindness or charity that go beyond strict obligation. In this document, beneficence is understood in a stronger sense, as an obligation. Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent actions in this sense: (1) do not harm and (2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.

Justice. -- Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens? This is a question of justice, in the sense of ”fairness in distribution” or ”what is deserved.” An injustice occurs when some benefit to which a person is entitled is denied without good reason or when some burden is imposed unduly. Another way of conceiving the principle of justice is that equals ought to be treated equally. However, this statement requires explication. Who is equal and who is unequal? What considerations justify departure from equal distribution? Almost all commentators allow that distinctions based on experience, age, deprivation, competence, merit and position do sometimes constitute criteria justifying differential treatment for certain purposes… the selection of research subjects needs to be scrutinized in order to determine whether some classes (e.g., welfare patients, particular racial and ethnic minorities, or persons confined to institutions) are being systematically selected simply because of their easy availability, their compromised position, or their manipulability, rather than for reasons directly related to the problem being studied.
Informed Consent. -- Respect for persons requires that subjects, to the degree that they are capable, be given the opportunity to choose what shall or shall not happen to them. This opportunity is provided when adequate standards for informed consent are satisfied.

While the importance of informed consent is unquestioned, controversy prevails over the nature and possibility of an informed consent. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that the consent process can be analyzed as containing three elements: information, comprehension and voluntariness.
[and in conclusion]:
One special instance of injustice results from the involvement of vulnerable subjects. Certain groups, such as racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, the very sick, and the institutionalized may continually be sought as research subjects, owing to their ready availability in settings where research is conducted. Given their dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition.
The full text of the Belmont Report can be read here.

Informed Consent

Central to the informed consent process is the necessity for the individual who is considering revealing their identity to understand that there is potential that it may cause them personal harm while hopefully contributing to the overall public good.

One potential for personal harm is immediately clear. Participating increases risk of stigmatization and retaliation. Media should offer a reasonable hope of a benefit that offsets this risk.

Not so clear is how the media may provide that benefit. The basic logic is that if a person contributes their story, their face, their name to a project, they increase the overall level of personal engagement for the story with the broader international audience. The promise is that the story will bring international aid, awareness, political pressure etc. to help the problem, and so the potential for personal stigmatization is offset by the promise of increasing the overall means of addressing the problem. In the best case, that is what should happen.

Unfortunately, in many cases, media serve to reinforce and reproduce western stereotypes and perceptions that Africa and other parts of the world are barbaric, hopeless places that generate horrific human rights problems whose solutions only lie in Western intervention. In this case, one has to wonder if the contributions of the participants have not been in vain. If they take the personal risk to contribute their stories and identities, then the media should drive some sense of good that might come to bear on the problem itself. Notions of how good might be achieved should be incorporated into the very process and form of the media itself, not merely into hoped for or perceived future aid, assistance, rescue or political change. Media strategy is not separate from the overall structural efforts to address the problem.

It is a completely fair question to ask any media producer what their sense of the public good is in each situation and how they will frame the story in light of western prejudices about that part of the world in general. If survivors decide to take the personal risk of participating in media then there should be an understanding of how the media being created will deliver on that promise. And media makers should have a clear sense of responsibility to use these stories in ways the promise the best outcomes for the subjects--who will have to live with the possibility of a lifelong association with the media that are being created.

Ease of Access

Survivors of sexual violence who are being treated in a hospital or program are singularly easy to locate. They exist as a potential representative population that stands in for a wider population that exists in more remote and dangerous areas. This makes them a desirable starting point for journalists and media makers. Care must be taken to keep those who have sought and are receiving medical help from bearing too much of an undue burden in telling their stories, where the intrusion of media makers may interfere with the process of healing.

Protection vs Paternalization

A balanced media policy must take into account the full range of potential benefits and harm from participating in media about sexual violence and war. Anyone who participates in a media project in which their stories are used or their identities are disclosed should have a full understanding of the potential that creates, both for healing and for harm. Patients should be protected, but not paternalized. If they have a clear understanding of what the implications are for disclosing their identities within the context of sexual violence, then they should be free to choose whether or not to participate. 

Over-protection can be a form of paternalizing, which is also a form of subjugation. Empowerment means giving subjects the tools to make their own decisions within their capabilities to do so with full awareness of the potential consequences. Key to that are: an understanding of the issues of depiction within the context of sexual violence, a process of assessing an individual’s capacity to make an informed autonomous decision, protection for those with diminished autonomy, and a clear process of generating informed consent.

The Internet and the Developing World

As we have already seen, the fastest way to bring communication to rural parts of the world is through cell phone services. Remote parts of China, Africa, Asia, the Middle East all rapidly transitioned from near complete isolation to cell phone coverage in a very short period of time. The next wave of access will likely include an internet that can be accessed via cell phone. While we can’t predict exactly how and when it will happen, it is likely that it will happen faster than we expect. A future where nearly everyone with a cell phone has some kind of internet access is imminent.

With it will come a range of new business and social opportunities. Also will come the need to manage one’s internet presence in the face of a whole new platform for disseminating stigmatizing information. Services such as Facebook and Twitter function very well on cell phones, bringing the social web to a much larger group of participants.

Publication on the web is permanent and ubiquitous. It is very hard to undo. Survivors who believe that they are sharing their stories through Western media to remote audiences may find in the near future that they have permanently broadcast their stories throughout their own neighborhoods.

Currently, each woman named a high profile photo essay on rape in Eastern Congo is somewhat permanently fixed in a state of online identity associating her with her trauma. A Google search for all the names included in the essay returns at the top of the search results the articles in which their identities are disclosed as rape victims. This includes minors and children. Because major publications online dominate search rankings, it is possible that this will not change over the course of the lifetimes of these women. So long as those websites and their archives are available online, in the top results returned for their names will be these articles.

As the internets become more essential to the functions of daily life in more rural communities, this may have significant impact on their lives. Should survivors wish to have an online life separate from those associations, it will be very hard to change their online identities. When the social web comes to the rest of the world, and it will definitely come, it will come with all the information ever published online included.

In the West, social media have come to dominate the social structures of upcoming generations, and the evidence is that this will only increase in its sophistication and permanence. It is becoming more and more common that every employer does a simple Google search before hiring a prospective employee. People vet their friends, potential love interests, colleagues, enemies, and virtually anyone they have an interest in by searching for information on them on the web. There is no reason to believe that this will not eventually be a social norm throughout the world.

This raises a serious problem with informed consent. Media makers are protected by signed release forms that in the West are legal protection and indication that a subject has given full consent. And these same release forms are signed and gathered throughout the world as a matter of practice. But how is informed consent possible for a person living in a rural area with limited access to the internet and therefore very little capacity to understand what it is that they are agreeing to? If you ask a rape survivor in the United States, who already participates in the social web, to speak publicly about their trauma, the implications for them are more clear. How do you facilitate an informed consent with someone who has yet to be introduced to the social web, and yet for whom the internet may well be a significant influence in the near future?

Photography and Survivors of Rape

The very act of permanently recording someone's image within the context of being a rape victim can itself be experienced to be a loss of control not unlike the experience of rape. The photographer now owns their images and has the capacity to further contribute to their stigmatization and exploitation.

The key issue here for photography is written right into the language of the medium. We “take” a photograph. There is the understanding that something is fixed and then removed from the situation. For traumatized subjects, this can be a reanimation of their trauma. It can even be a participation in or a reactivation of some of the principle aspects of the trauma: loss of power, loss of control, loss of identity, and becoming the property of another person.

In the United States standard journalism practice is to never show the faces or disclose the names of a rape survivor. If either of those identifying aspects are to be disclosed, the argument must be made that the public’s right to that specific information supercedes the individual need for privacy. That would be an extremely rare occurrence.

Within the ethics of journalism, that is the standard for victim protection. Journalism is a public service that produces a public commodity, and decisions about disclosure are made based on an idea of the public good as well as the popularity and marketability of the information. This allows for a weighing of the issues. How does the individual right to privacy balance against the need for the public to know? Decisions are made with the understanding that public disclosure can do private harm.

For hospitals and public health initiatives, the boundaries and purposes of depiction are different and so the decision process must be handled differently. Since their primary mission is to heal people, the care and concern must be first for the patient and program participant. Only after all the questions regarding their protection are answered can strategies for public disclosure be made. There is no weighing process balancing disclosure versus public good. The rights of the patient must always come first. Only after those rights have been satisfactorily protected can media strategies be created.

For media makers, this is a difficult problem. If you remove depiction of the survivor from the possibilities of telling the story, you remove the very elements that make the story popular. Pressure from media producers will almost always be in the direction of more disclosure. Without it, there is much less chance for award winning work in a market that rewards the commodification of suffering.

Consent, Coercion and Undue Influence

Ariella Azoulay, in The Civil Contract of Photography, questions the ability of someone recently the victim of war and physical violation to give consent to have their photograph taken. For her, even the asking is tantamount to a repeated rape.

With recently and severely traumatized survivors of violence, it is questionable as to how much informed consent is possible. Those who are so close to their trauma as to be unable to talk about it are at a significantly increased risk being unable to give a proper informed consent. They will, however, possibly recognize and experience the loss of control that goes with it. The act of asking for consent can be interpreted as an endorsement of their experience of continued exploitation.

How many women who are so recently severely traumatized and who are now in a program that may be their only hope for safety and healing, have the strength to say 'no' when asked permission by someone in such authority over them? And how many might say 'yes' out of fear or lack of power?

Their right to privacy is intimately connected to their ability to heal. In the case of Congo, where rape is a too common experience, it might be thought that the increased frequency of rape would lessen the potential stigma. Instead it would seem that the opposite is true, and that survivors, rather than being more accepted, are in fact more likely to be thrown out of their homes, villages, and communities into a life of perpetual stigma. The potential stigma is greater. The very act of permanently recording someone's image within the context of being a rape victim could itself be experienced to be a loss of control not unlike the experience of rape.

Likewise, we could also say that a survivor’s right to publicly tell their story may also be connected to their ability to heal. If a survivor actively seeks a voice and platform and a stage on which to tell her story, then it can be built to best serve her needs. That stage should be created based on the terms of her involvement, not on the terms of those who want to use her picture. It is a balancing act.

The Promise of Empowerment

It has been a common sentiment in humanitarian photography and photojournalism that photographing the suffering, dispossessed, and powerless gives them a voice by exposing their condition to the world. To deny them the opportunity to be photographed is to silence their voice and to keep them in the shadows of obscurity. The logic behind this argument makes perfect sense from within a celebrity and advertising saturated culture, and ensures that the media makers continue to have access and control.

In actuality there is little evidence to show that media exposure is intrinsically empowering. If anything it raises risk on the part of the subjects who may have little or no access to a functioning judicial system, police protection, or even basic physical safety.

What is clear though is that compassion and suffering are media commodities that are bought and sold within economies and markets. The currency of exchange can be money (both in the form of for-profit and non-profit support), status, and/or recognition for the makers within our advertising driven media economies.

Whatever the outcome for the subjects, it is certain that the media produced will serve the purposes of the producers. Photographers, filmmakers, and media producers all have intended outcomes in mind, whether they state them up front or not. This is true from the award winning photojournalist to the most casual visitor who just wants a photo souvenir to show friends back home.

With the promise for empowerment, photojournalism and documentary media frequently cross the line into exploitation, leaving the subject fixed permanently in the broader public arena as a victim while the producers of the media are rewarded.

With that said, media can drive or facilitate realized empowering results. But to do so the media strategies must be in service to specific goals. Actual empowerment should be an observable outcome in which the subjects achieve greater influence and control over their own circumstances while having their own rights protected. These are ultimately systemic or political solutions with emotional components. Insofar as media are empowering, they should drive targeted lasting systemic improvement. Media that focus purely on the emotional content of the subject may elicit a strong reaction from the audience but achieve little for the subjects.

When the needs of the photographer or publication supercede the needs and rights of the subject, then the boundary into exploitation has been crossed.

Justice for All Survivors

There is no situation in which a media maker’s ethical obligations to their subjects in the remote parts of the world differ from their ethical obligations to American or Western subjects. When there are any deviations in the ethics of depicting non-Western survivors of sexual violence from Western survivors, the burden is on the creators and the publishers of such work to demonstrate that it is necessary and just. In so far as they cannot, then the non-Western subjects should be afforded the same rights and protections as Western subjects. This is particularly significant in the revealing of identities of minors and children of rape, whose depictions would be protected and prohibited in most western countries, regardless of consent.

Rights Ownership and Repeat Trauma

For all survivors of gender-based violence, a principle function of the trauma was to remove control and ownership of their bodies. For anyone who was taken or kept in any kind of slavery or subjugation this has even greater consequence in the issues of healing. When they are photographed in the context of the trauma another loss of ownership takes place--their image becomes the property of another person. The impact of that will depend on the individual.

The simple act of that exchange--their image being taken and the loss of control that goes with it--can be an extension of the original trauma. This effect will multiply as the social web becomes more and more prevalent throughout the world.

Photography and Healing

Many claims are made about photography’s ability to heal, empower, recontextualize, and otherwise change the circumstances and inner lives of suffering individuals for the better. In each case we have to ask the question, to what end, and how?

From a clinical perspective, many of these claims are suspect at best and are founded on market influences and logics that many of the makers aren’t aware that they are participating in. If the goal in making pictures is to heal trauma survivors specifically, then there have to be systemic goals based on clinical evidence that drives actual realized internal change. The language of empowerment is not enough.

A critical stage in healing from trauma is the metabolization of the trauma within the psyche of the survivor. This occurs through a process and in a protected space within which the survivor is able to explore the trauma in a way that results in ownership and integration. In order for this to happen, many survivors will need to have control of their own story. To have it fixed in the public arena creates risk of loss of control and re-exploitation within the context of the rape. That risk must be balance with the need to speak out against injustice and systemic violence.


Contributing stories and identities to media productions about sexual violence has the potential to be both helpful and harmful. Key to mitigating the potential for harm is a clear process of informed consent, combined with a goal driven media strategy that is in full support of a survivor’s rights and needs as a whole person.

Survivors of gender based violence break down into two basic groups: autonomous individuals who are capable of informed consent, and those with diminished autonomy due to the recency and/or severity of the trauma who need special protection.

Informed consent for autonomous individuals contains three elements; information, comprehension and voluntariness. When the requirements for a fully informed consent are met, media makers have an obligation to mitigate any and all potential harm wherever possible.

Whenever the needs of the makers or the distributors of such media productions supercede the rights and needs of the subjects, the line into exploitation has been crossed.

Publishing names, faces and stories increases the overall reader/viewer engagement with the story. Therefore media pressure will frequently be in the direction of increased disclosure. It also permanently associates a survivor with their trauma in a world where the internet is increasingly available.

Throughout the process, there is never a situation in which the ethical obligations of media makers towards their subjects in the West differ from their subjects elsewhere in the world. Whenever differences emerge, the burden is on the media makers to demonstrate that they are necessary and just.

[1] Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, by Helen Benedict via Poynter Institute.

[2] The Civil Contract of Photography, by Ariella Azoulay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thank you, this is so thoughtful and professional help to navigate a difficult topic. Victims' healing should come first; and media and other goals only in service to that primary goal. Probably a difficult ethic to stick to in our media frenzy world, and I think it's becoming harder for people to separate voluntary reality television from involuntary victimization. How could that be possible for thinking people? I suppose we become desensitized and opt out of thinking responsibly.