On April 28, the magazine LensCulture posted a photo of what appeared to be a man raping a girl who looks like a young teenager.
The magazine — which has nearly a million Facebook followers — was using the photo to promote a competition in partnership with Magnum Photos, which cost $60 to enter 10 photos. “Don’t miss out!” the post said, a few sentences above the photo.
The caption said the girl is 16 and is being forced to have sexual interactions with a “client” in the red-light district of Kolkata, called Sonagachi.
The girl is on her back, looking up at the camera, with a naked man on top of her. Her face is in full view. Her identity is not concealed.
Based on the content of the photo and its caption, the photo violated UNICEF’s ethical guidelines on reporting on children by showing her face, which makes her identifiable, according to human rights activists.
The agency writes: “Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation.”
The photo infuriated human rights activists and photojournalists.
“I’ve seen some moral bankruptcy in photojournalism, but this is the most extreme,” says Benjamin Chesterton at Duckrabbit, a film production and training company, who first wrote about the photo. “This is a photo of a child sex slave being used to promote a for-profit competition by Magnum — the most prestigious photo agency in the world.”
The incident also brings attention to a broader issue in photojournalism, Chesterton says: How the Western media depicts — and often demeans — young women and girls in poor countries.
“This is the elephant in the room: how we view the suffering of distant others,” says human rights activist Robert Godden of Rights Exposure, which helps nonprofits and governments create effective and ethical campaigns. “What if this photo series was taken in the U.S. or the U.K. — would the girl have been presented this way?”
He adds, “Another good question to ask is: If this was a family member of mine, would I want them portrayed like this?”
Amid a barrage of protests from readers, photojournalists and human rights activists, LensCulture took down the photo hours after it was posted.
“But at this point, the magazine said nothing,” Chesterton says. “There was no statement, no acknowledgment of the absolute human rights abuse of that young woman, of that child.”
Two days after the image first went up, LensCulture issued an apology on Facebook for making a “serious mistake in judgment” in presenting the photo “out of context.”
But the magazine defended the photo and its photographer, Souvid Datta:
We’d like to emphasize that we believe the work of the photographer was carried out with great ethical care and in close collaboration with the subject portrayed; by contrast, our own posting was hasty and presented the situation without proper context.
Datta did not respond to NPR’s email request for an interview.
Within a few days of the controversy’s start, the validity and ethics of some of Datta’s other work came under fire.
Datta has been a highly regarded photojournalist since starting his career in 2013. He has won several prestigious awards, including ones from Getty Images and Magnum Photos. And his work has appeared in The New York Times and National Geographic.
On Thursday, Datta admitted to Time to doctoring images. The photo of the girl led to a closer look at Datta’s other work, which led to accusations of plagiarism.
He admitted to taking a portion of a photo from influential photographer Mary Ellen Mark and inserting it into his own work without attributing it to her. He also admitted to taking other people’s photographs and submitting them in photo competitions.
At that point, LensCulture changed its view. On Thursday, May 4, the magazine’s CEO Kamran Mohsenin told NPR that they no longer believed the photo was “taken with great ethical care.”
“Clearly that picture, in particular, is not appropriate in any context,” Kamran says.
Shortly after LensCulture spoke with NPR, the magazine issued a new apology on Facebook:
“We condemn the lack of ethical standards used to create the photograph in question, and we apologize for publishing the photograph (which should never be published anywhere).”
Renowned photojournalist Donna Ferrato agrees that the photo is not appropriate in any context.
“There’s no editorial value at all to this image. It’s sensational, and it’s incredibly damaging to the victim,” says Ferrato, who was one of the first to document domestic violence in the U.S.
“When I first saw the photo used in the ad by LensCulture, I was really devastated,” she says. “It disgusted me that there are two men in the room with this young girl. There’s the ‘client,’ paying to have sex with her. And behind the client, stands the photographer, who has been paid, through grant money, to take photographs of the girl being used.
“All this photo says is, ‘We men are in power, and we can do anything we want. The photographer can do anything he wants,’ ” Ferrato adds.
Last week, Datta, the photographer, posted a comment about the photo and the controversy to his Facebook page, which has been taken down.
In the statement, he said he was “horrified” that the photo was used to promote a competition. And the girl in the photo “is now an adult and has given her consent to use her photo.”
Datta also defended the image of the girl:
She asked me to photograph this interaction — fully aware of my intention to publish this story widely in an attempt to create constructive awareness … Where some see the image and point to the anonymity of the client and apparently undignified exposure of an underage girl, I see the astounding resilience of a young woman who takes ownership of her reality — unlawful, deplorable and bleak though it is — and determines to be more than what her circumstances have forced upon her. I see a woman who wants to speak directly to viewers, saying if you actually want to understand my perspective “then look into my eyes and see what I feel.”
Human rights activist Godden doesn’t agree with Datta’s choice of showing the girl’s face in the photo. He says that shocking photos such as this one aren’t helping girls in Sonagachi, trapped as child sex slaves.
“Protection of children is always top priority,” Godden says. “If this photo was exposing a practice that was unknown or hidden, then you could possibly justify exposing a child’s identity to document what’s happening.”
Such an exception was made recently with child and adult slavery issues in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia and construction in the Middle East, Godden says.
Another example is Nick Ut’s iconic war photo, showing a 9-year-old girl, naked, running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam. Historians credit that photo with changing the public’s opinion about the war.
In the case of child slaves in Sonagachi, Godden says, the problem has been well known to activists and governmental officials for years.
“Human rights activists have been working on this issue for decades,” he says. “Awareness is not the problem, in my opinion. Now it’s about technical support to these girls and countering corruption in those country. It’s not about shocking photos.”