How do you get people to pay attention to the plight of refugees?
The Amnesty International arm in the Netherlands had an idea. With the help of a Dutch media agency called Tosti Creative, they self-published several hundred copies of a 36-page magazine called Glamoria. It looks like a glossy fashion magazine, with a name that seems to be a spin on the word “glamour.” But Glamoria also references the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The organization’s goal was to focus on the plight of refugees now living in camps on Greek islands.
On the cover, Dutch actress Jouman Fattal, who fled Syria as a child, is wearing a couple of strategically placed orange life jackets (which refugees use when traveling by boat). She’s wearing makeup and her hair floats above her head. Her midriff is exposed.
The magazine, published on December 12, contains articles about the plight of refugees. About 200 copies of the 36-page magazine were distributed to “relevant organizations, influencers and politicians,” according to Amnesty International Netherlands. In addition there was an online version.
The aid organization got plenty of attention – but not in the way they’d hoped.
Zaid Muhammad, who in his Facebook profile identifies himself as a refugee and is now living in the Netherlands, wrote on Facebook, “I’m not exactly sure why the lady in this photo looks … relaxed? … I also don’t know if you realize that most of the life jackets refugees [use] are just useless … I believed that they will never do the job in case our little lovely small crowded plastic boat drowned.”
Shaista Aziz, the co-founder of the nonprofit group Safe Space, which addresses issues of sexual harassment, abuse and violence, wrote an op-ed on the U.K. blog Media Diversified: “The woman’s only function in this photograph is to look like a passive sexualized object – she exists only to please all those who gaze at her.”
Twitter lit up with comments as well.
On December 17, Amnesty International Netherlands wrote in a tweet: “We apologise for any offence this may have caused. We never intended to offend anyone and regret that the choice for the cover has been a distraction from our ongoing work to end the dire situation for many trapped on the Greek islands.”
The print editions of the magazine were withdrawn from circulation.
In an email statement to NPR, Amnesty International Netherlands explained that the magazine “attempted to draw attention to the sharp contrast between the luxurious lifestyle portrayed in magazines and the terrible situation of people in the camps.”
On December 19, the main office of Amnesty International also issued an apology: “The magazine, produced by Amnesty International Netherlands, was in extremely poor taste and entirely at odds with our values and objectives as a global human rights movement. It is clear that the magazine trivialized the suffering and trauma refugees have experienced fleeing their homes, particularly women. We realise the images also compounded sexualized gender stereotypes that harm and objectify women, specifically women of colour. We are conscious that the use of life jackets as a prop was particularly hurtful to people who have depended on these for their survival. We are profoundly sorry for this.”
The publication was part of a campaign that pointed people toward a petition, “Don’t Look Away,” calling for the Dutch government to bring 1,000 refugees from the Greek islands to the Netherlands. Over 44,000 people have signed the petition so far.
Assessing the ad and the reaction it sparked, Ludek Stavinoha says, “It was effective at getting attention but perhaps the wrong kind of attention.” Stavinoha is a lecturer in media and international development at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
It is difficult to get the world to focus on refugee issues, says Stavinoha: “They chose this image precisely because they knew a traditional photo of a refugee camp would not get people’s attention.” The use of celebrities and ironic photos to raise interest in a humanitarian issue is a response to the perceived failures of using graphic, realistic photographs that some critics say exploit suffering people.
“On the one hand, Amnesty has sought to break through perceived compassion fatigue by using this provocative image,” he says. “Yet the outcome has been the very opposite.” Stavinoha says the “shock factor” has brought the focus to the image itself rather than the underlying issue.
In addition to withdrawing the magazine and apologizing for the Glamoria cover, Amnesty International Netherlands has replaced the image on the digital publication with another shot of Fattal. In the new cover photo, Fattal has barbed wire wrapped around her face.
Freelance writer Rachel D. Cohen is a former intern for NPR’s Science Desk.