Ela Yokes 1

Documenting Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Unethical Practices Plaguing Photojournalism

Ela Yokes

23 mei 2022 • 11 min

The occurrence of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict environments is a documented phenomenon spanning centuries and continents. Accounts of sexual exploitation have often emerged from situations of lawlessness, with a wider context of brutal acts and atrocities committed in the chaos of armed conflict. From the Bangladesh Liberation War to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans during the 1990s, as well as allegations of systematic rape in Ethiopia's ongoing conflict in Tigray, sexual violence has historically appeared as an inescapable by-product of war. Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Penny Stanley, 'Rape in war: Lessons of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s', The International Journal of Human Rights 4, no. 3-4 (2000): 67.

The need to document and investigate these crimes is self-evident, as is the importance of communicating to the public the gravity of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) and its long-term consequences. This is especially relevant given that CRSV is characterized by an almost total absence of justice for survivors, who may have to encounter the perpetrators when going about their daily lives once fighting has subsided. Often, however, the unethical behavior of certain photojournalists, combined with the pervasiveness of digital media, poses a further threat to a survivor's recovery process and even their physical safety. In a supposed attempt to 'raise awareness' about CRSV, many photojournalists don't seem to consider that images published online can remain in circulation forever – anyone with a smartphone and access to the internet could get hold of and reproduce these images in a way that has become increasingly difficult to regulate. Photographs that depict visually identifiable survivors of CRSV, including those that reveal real names and precise locations in their captions, have the potential to cause great harm to survivors and present them solely through a lens of victimisation. Survivors may also be exposed to stigmatization, ostracisation or even violent reprisals within their own communities, which can only impede their recovery and prolong the trauma they have already experienced.

I knew I wanted to become a photojournalist while I was studying at university, although I had little knowledge of what the job actually involved. At first, I looked up to the women who I saw as 'pioneers' in a male-dominated industry, including the likes of Lynsey Addario. It was only after graduating and gaining first-hand experience in the industry that I began to notice concerning trends in some of the leading photojournalists' work, particularly those that dealt with sensitive or taboo topics in traditional societies.

In an article on the overabundance of clichéd images of war, Peter Bouckaert suggests that some of the industry's top female photojournalists, Addario included, are changing the game in conflict photography. According to Bouckaert, these photojournalists have helped instigate the shift from a 'macho culture' in which dramatic and violent images have been at the forefront, to one where an increasing number of women are devoting the time and effort to tell intimate and private stories.Peter Bouckaert, 'The Crisis of the Cliché', Trigger Magazine , 5 November 2019, . While it is true that female photographers are often granted greater access into other women's spaces, which would usually be closed-off to their male counterparts, I have yet to see much difference in ethical considerations for the people being photographed.

I started to dig deeper into Addario's archive, and what I found was appalling. Her series entitled 'Rape: Weapon of War', which is still widely available online, features countless images of visually identifiable rape survivors in various African and Middle Eastern countries, including at least three minors. Unless informed, written consent is given, failing to protect the identities of adult victims of sexual assault is a criminal offence in many western countries, including the UK, where Addario is based. The British press standards regulator, IPSO, also prohibits the publication of details that may disclose the identity of anyone who has reported sexual assault. Outing a child as a victim of a sexual offence is, in all circumstances, illegal, and the right to anonymity cannot be waived by the child, nor by their guardian. But instead of being fined in a criminal court and dismissed by the publications commissioning her work, Addario has been showered with awards and lauded for her 'courage', as if she were some kind of heroic, inspirational figure. One image in particular, which was promoted by the Women's Media Center, featured an identifiable child who had allegedly been raped a week earlier, and was captioned, 'The child had screamed at the time, then bled. With her vagina and her young psyche damaged, [NAME] would no longer speak.' It is not stated whether the name given was a pseudonym or the girl's real name. Nevertheless, I struggle to understand how describing a sexual offence against a child in this way is acceptable. It is also not a coincidence that the majority of these images have been taken in countries such as the DRC, Iraq and South Sudan, where legislation and governance are weak and there aren't sufficient measures in place to protect survivors of sexual violence from exploitative photojournalists. If it would be unethical, or even illegal, to photograph survivors in such a way in Europe, why are editors tolerating this practice against historically marginalized communities?

The consequences of identifying an individual as a victim of CRSV can be serious and long-lasting. This is something that Paula Bronstein, a prominent American photojournalist with forty years' experience in the field, acknowledges herself. One of her photographs depicting a named and facially identifiable three-year-old rape survivor in the DRC, noted in its caption that women and children suffer in fear of 'reprisals and social exclusion' as a result of sexual abuse. Yet Bronstein thought it would be acceptable to publish such an image online and even use it as her submission for the Siena International Photo Awards, where it was awarded second place. After several complaints were made on Twitter, the Siena Awards decided to remove the name, age and precise location of the child from their website. No other disciplinary action was taken. As pointed out in a Twitter thread by Benjamin Chesterton of Duckrabbit, blogger Craig Murray began serving an eight-month prison sentence last August for posts that could lead to the identification of sexual assault survivors. The survivors were not minors, nor did Murray directly disclose their names or publish their photographs. To me, Bronstein's photograph and its recognition by a prestigious awarding body is a testament to the fact that photojournalism is still the 'macho cult' that Jörg Colberg describes it to be, Jörg Colberg, 'Photography's Macho Cult', Conscientious Photography Magazine , 10 September 2018, the trophy-hunting of privileged photographers in the West takes precedence over the impact on real lives in developing countries.

It is not only the identification of survivors of CRSV that has the potential to cause harm – it is also the way in which they are portrayed that can perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce a sense of isolation, victimization and exploitation. As noted on the Dart Centre's page for 'Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict', 'visual clichés are common – showing the survivor as isolated and brutalised, removed from their own environment, or focusing intensely on the physical. On some occasions, this can also tap into a long history of racist imagery that dates from colonialism and slavery'. Dart Center Europe, 'The Images Don't Fade: Be Careful with Visual Choices', 'Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict,' accessed April 15, 2022, While reading an interview with Nina Berman on ethical coverage of CRSV, alarm bells started to ring about a photograph I had seen on the international cover of TIME Magazine some years ago. A South Sudanese woman, named and visually identified as having been repeatedly raped while fleeing civil war, was photographed by none other than Lynsey Addario. The image shows the woman standing alone in an empty room, almost nude, drawing the viewer's attention to her heavy pregnancy, and in its caption, disclosing her positive HIV status – both resulting from the rapes she had endured. The photograph felt uncomfortably intrusive, so I wondered in what context it had been obtained. Getting the access to interview and photograph people in sensitive situations or traumatized states is not an easy feat: this is something I have learned myself. It can take months, if not years to sincerely build that level of trust. It's a process that is also markedly more difficult in conservative communities where stigmatization of rape survivors and HIV-positive individuals may be more prevalent. Not speaking the local language of the region is, in my opinion, a significant barrier to establishing this trust. In her book, Of Love & War, Addario explains that she didn't photograph on the first day of arriving at the safe house, but began photographing on the second day, which is presented as an act of goodwill. In a separate interview with TIME, she also states her intentions for the photograph to 'speak the consequences of rape as a weapon of war' and that 'the most natural way to do this was to focus on her belly'. Aryn Baker, 'The Secret War Crime: How Do You Ask Women to Relive Their Worst Nightmares', TIME Magazine , 10 March 2016, apparently sharing this vision with the woman prior to photographing her, Addario claims that, 'before I even finished my sentence she had taken her dress off. She completely understood'. Rachel D. Cohen, 'Powerful Photos Of Love And War By Lynsey Addario' NPR , 25 October 2018, As a photographer who has covered topics much less sensitive than CRSV, I find it very difficult to believe that this is a truthful account of the interaction that occurred. Some of Nina Berman's observations of visual coverage of CRSV, including certain photographs 'aestheticising the body of the survivor', which she describes as 'problematic when it's a crime against the body and the person', seem to have been noted with these images in mind. The photograph has been widely published by TIME and features in a book of Addario's work, meaning that this survivor may never have the opportunity to get it removed.

I might add that the fault here is not only Addario's – it is equally that of Kimberly Smith, the American founder of the NGO that rescued this woman and had a duty to protect her, but instead allowed a predatory photographer to enter a space that was supposed to offer a sanctuary for survivors. An NGO in the West wouldn't open their doors to a photojournalist in this way, much less allow a photojournalist to ask a rape survivor to take their clothes off to be photographed. We can also point the finger at the editors who didn't take a moment to consider the context and implications of a photograph, as well as the awarding bodies and publishers who put Addario on a pedestal and uncritically accept her accounts of how certain problematic photographs were obtained. Was it ever explained to this woman, in a language she understood, how her photographs would be used, and what the possible outcomes and associated risks might be? Can valid consent really be given in a scenario where there is a significant power imbalance between the subject being photographed, and the western photographer and NGO workers, the latter of whom the survivor may feel indebted to for being rescued?

In circumstances where a survivor of any form of sexual violence has regained a sense of agency, has recovered to a certain extent or even become an activist, an informed decision to waive their right to anonymity is much more valid. In the context of regions that are still volatile, lawless or impoverished, where survivors of sexual violence are seeking refuge in safe houses or have returned to communities where repercussions and ostracisation are real possibilities, photographers must recognize that even where consent is given, visual choices need to be carefully considered to protect survivors from further victimization.

There is a wealth of information out there for covering CRSV in an ethical way. The Murad Code, a code of conduct for those collecting testimonies from survivors of CRSV, was drafted in 2020 for this very purpose. Photojournalism, and conflict photography in particular, is facing a reckoning for a long history of harmful practices, which must no longer be excused on the pretext of raising awareness or capturing an audience's attention. Viewers and editors need to look beyond shocking and sensationalized images of CRSV and consider that their circulation online can cause lifelong harm to people in parts of the world where survivors may have no recourse to justice, or no platform to expose a photographer's behaviour. And this is what should determine the visual treatments that end up on a newspaper's front page or the cover of a magazine.

Further Reading

Addario, Lynsey. Of Love & War . New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Baker, Aryn. 'The Secret War Crime: How Do You Ask Women to Relive Their Worst Nightmares'. TIME Magazine . March 10, 2016. .

Bouckaert, Peter. 'The Crisis of the Cliche'. Trigger Magazine . November 5, 2019. .

Cohen, Rachel D. 'Powerful Photos Of Love And War By Lynsey Addario'. NPR. October 25, 2018. .

Colberg, Jorge. 'Photography's Macho Cult'. Conscientious Photography Magazine , September 10, 2018. .

Dart Center Europe. 'The Images Don't Fade: Be Careful with Visual Choices'. Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict . Accessed April 15, 2022. .

Kennedy Pipe, Caroline and Penny Stanley. 'Rape in war: Lessons of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s'. The International Journal of Human Rights 4, no. 3-4 (2000): 67.

Ela Yokes is an independent photojournalist and writer whose work covers issues relating to human rights and migration, with a particular focus on communities fleeing conflict or political persecution in the Middle East and East Africa.

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