How not to put a face on human tragedy


Jenabu Balde from Guinea-Bissau was photographed by Ami Vitale in 2011. This image has been edited and tweeted with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. (Photo courtesy of Ami Vitale)

The phony #BringBackOurGirls photo, a heavily-edited and unauthorized image of a Guinea-Bissauan girl 2,000 miles away from Chibok, Nigeria, was not a classic Internet hoax, but it received the same scrutiny.

Emmanuel Hephzibah's viral image Emmanuel Hephzibah’s viral image

The girl’s original photographer, Ami Vitale, was rightfully outraged by the heavily-Tweeted image, which added a tear to the girl’s face.

“They are not victims,” Vitale told the New York Times about her photo subjects. “…portraying them as victims is not truthful.”

Others dismissed the hubbub.

“the people in the picture frame I bought at Target aren’t my real family either,” wrote a New York Times commenter. “they’re stock images. nobody thinks they’re actual photos of the girls who were kidnapped.”

Twitter users might be smart enough to know the girl pictured was not kidnapped but how many are inquisitive enough to verify if she actually wanted to be part of #BringBackOurGirls?

“There’s a power dynamic at issue here,” said photographer Peter DiCampo, who founded Everyday Africa, a mobile project seeking to document normal life on the continent. “When it comes to Africa or the so-called ‘developing’ world, people often feel they can get away with this type of thing because the people photographed are less likely to see it and less likely to take action.”

“If they were people from a more connected country, this wouldn’t be unacceptable,” Vitale said to The Washington Post. “We want the same accountability all over.”

Emmanuel Hephzibah, the Creative Director of the Lagos-based Create Studioz, who doctored the image and added the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and his Twitter handle, said he acted out of frustration.

“I was actually crying out so that our voice could be heard in Nigeria,” said Hephzibah over email. “…it seems like our government was not ready to take any action.”

Although he has apologized and taken the image down, Hephzibah’s actions illuminate the pitfalls of “hashtag activism.”

When online media turns out to be dishonest, any reaction often dissipates quickly and commentators move on. But what happens when a dishonest piece of media is used for a “good cause” like a human rights campaign? How do you humanize tragedy while maintaining the dignity of those who’ve suffered?

For some professionals, there are hard and fast rules that apply to using images of children in human rights campaigns. At Love146, an anti-child trafficking organization, images of children have to provide thematic balance (kids can’t only be photographed looking like victims). Photographs also have to be shot at eye-level with the subject, or from below. They must never be shot from above, which lead designer Marilyn de Guehery says diminishes the dignity of the child and gives the viewer the “power to condescend.”

“To avoid manipulating viewer’s emotions through shock and guilt, we never place the viewer in a position of power or pity for the child,” said de Guehery.

And in the particular case of #BringBackOurGirls, de Guehery believes a line was crossed, even if Hephzibah’s intentions were good.

“If the mission of photo is to raise awareness and gain international outcry, then perhaps they’ve achieved their mission,” de Guehery said. “But now you have to ask the international community: Do you also care about Guinea Bissauan girls who aren’t trafficked? Do you also have an interest in their dignity?”

Everyday Africa’s Peter DiCampo takes a wide variety of photos. When deciding what to publish, everything from an ice cream store in Accra to a refugee camp, is given “equal weight” to provide his audience different views of Africa.

“It can only increase the world’s understanding of this continent and fill the gaps in what we commonly see,” he told The Washington Post.

The reality is that the thought and effort required to responsibly mobilize activists around the world is often neglected during a crisis like the Chibok kidnapping or, to some critics, Kony 2012.

“In an emergency, you don’t always stop to think of long term implications,” said de Guehery. “We have to restrain ourselves to respond and not just react.”

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.

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