Smile for the camera please

whilst I cut off your clitoris …

Not funny is it.

So lets start with another story.

A famous Iraqi journalist travels to the USA where he gains access to a pedophile ring and gets pictures of a seven year old boy being abused by a catholic priest.  The boy thought he was going to a party but it turns out the priest has something else in mind. The pictures show the boy in agony and pain.

On returning to Iraq one of the national papers decides to print the photographs for which the journalist is paid. The photos zip around the world on the net. The boy is clearly identifiable in the pictures and no effort is made to conceal his identity. Why bother? These are great photographs and after all its only a white trash American boy.

For their work the photographer is awarded some of the most prestigious photography awards in the land. Afterall it was exclusive access and really it would have taken too much skill to shoot the piece without actually showing the boys face crying out to his mother in pain.

At what point does this story become implausible?

Tell me then,  just what is the  justification for the Washington Post in publishing Andrea Bruce’s photographs of a girl having her clitoris cut off?

Its a question that not enough people are asking as Bruce continues to pick up awards for her series of photographs on the practice of female genital mutilation of young girls in Iraq.

It seems that the only person to speak out about this is The Travel Photographer.

But let me add my voice, this  is a clear infringement of article 12 of the Universal declaration of human rights.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

We are led to believe that the seven year old girl was not even aware she was about to be cut (she thought she was going to a party) and so cannot in any way have given permission for the picture.

If I had published this photo at the BBC I would be sacked and the BBC fined. The girl would be able to sue under European Human Rights legislation.  I’d like to think that it would never, ever happen.

Would Bruce have taken this shot if this was an American child being mutilated? Maybe; that’s what photographers do, but it certainly would never have been published.

The subject is important. It needs to be covered and Bruce is a seriously talented and thoughtful photographer but I have always believed that journalists devalue their profession when they appear to put themselves in front of the lives of those whose stories they are covering. To do this with a child is a shocking because no apology can ever give that little girl back the indignity of having her face splashed around the world to be pitied at the moment of her abuse.

And that’s where again I think this a further abuse of the girls human rights. This time as they relate to children:

Principle 2

The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.

Only someone cynical could argue that the photograph of the girl being mutilated was in her ‘best interest’.

And sadly Andrea, what we both know is that some very  sick people will enjoy that photograph, just as they would a boy being sexually abused.

We need to reflect.


Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (22 Comments)

  1. trent says:

    I posted this comment on the APAD blog which linked to you, so figured it should be here, too:

    good questions, and I don’t know that there are easy answers.

    but first you can throw out the analogy with the clergy-abused boy. as described, these are two completely different situations— the boy wasn’t happily offered up by his parents and culture to be abused.

    of course there is value to hard photographs like these as well as any further coverage of the topic. there is tremendous value to the coverage of this, as well as tough stories like clergy abuse. please, photojournalists, continue to shine light on the dark corners of humanity.

    that said, there is also room for serious discussion about protecting the identity of victims. here’s a hard question: what should we do when the victims and their families don’t see themselves as victims?

  2. duckrabbit says:

    Trent misunderstands that in many countries where FGM (female genital mutilation) is practiced, it is outlawed in the same way that child abuse is outlawed. Sexual abuse itself is rooted in cultural cycles. Many abusers were abused as children and many abusers are parents. For them abuse is a cultural norm.

    No-one has argued that this story shouldn’t be covered. I covered it myself many times in Ethiopia. But the photographer by offering this picture for publication has sold the girls human right to privacy and dignity. What is much more terrifying is how few people can understand this, showing an endemic disregard for people from developing countries.

    I’m really struggling Trent to understand what the ‘value’ of showing this girls face was? What else did it achieve other then to broadcast her humiliation and win the photographer an award?

    I don’t believe that photographers in America, or anywhere else, can be so fucked up that they really don’t understand their moral duty is to protect the rights and welfare of children before their careers? Are people really naive enough to believe that photos like this make any difference to whether children in Iraq get cut, but you can bet some sicko somewhere is whacking off to it.

  3. Trent in his eagerness to encourage photojournalists at-large to “shine light at dark corners of humanity” misses it. The victim is a 7 year old, whose name (and that of her father and her family) and her face have been plastered by the Washington Post. There’s no question that “shining the light” on the nasty practice of FGM is worthwhile and desirable, but not this way. This is exploitation at its worst. No one is arguing against covering this story…the issue at hand is how ethical was the photographer, the Washington Post and the rest of the organizations in publishing the story as it appeared? If that’s still debatable, than our morality as human beings has sunk to incomprehensible levels.

    • duckrabbit says:

      ‘If that’s still debatable, than our morality as human beings has sunk to incomprehensible levels.’

      This is what’s really scaring me. I don’t think people actually get the problem here. I’m finding this hard to understand.

  4. trent says:

    I guess you’d be better off asking these questions of the photographer, Andrea Bruce, who is a well-respected photojournalist. One of the best.

    You bring up good points, but when you insinuate that photographers in America are “fucked up” and accuse them of putting their careers ahead of the rights and welfare of children, your voice gets a little shrill. I don’t know Andrea personally, but based on her excellent work over the years I’d give her more credit than you do.

    As for sickos whacking off to the photos, that’s a side issue that doesn’t really go anywhere in a photojournalism context. The girl’s privacy? That should be the focus of the discussion.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Trent you seem to be suggesting that a moral judgment should be made on someone’s reputation as opposed to the photograph? Thank God the law doesn’t work that way otherwise people like Michael Jackson could get away with abusing kids.

      You see you made my case for me. You’ve put the photographers reputation before the rights of the child, a question that you refuse to engage with. You don’t seem to be able to answer my question, so I’ll see if I can provoke you to be brave enough to confront the issue and not be frightened by someone’s reputation. Here we go ago again:

      ‘I’m really struggling Trent to understand what the ‘value’ of showing this girls face was? What else did it achieve other then to broadcast her humiliation and win the photographer an award?’

      Enlighten us. I’d be happy to be wrong.

  5. trent says:

    My point is this:

    I believe The Washington Post has a reputation for ethical reporting.

    I believe that this essay was published only after serious conversations regarding the ethics of the situation.

    They made a decision to publish it. I would love to hear what their reasoning was.

  6. duckrabbit says:


    first off THANK YOU for entering this debate.

    In all honesty I’m not one for America bashing and I’m sorry if you or anyone perceived that. I think America has produced much of the most inspiring art and literature in the last 100 years, something that should be celebrated. Ethics crosses all boundaries, as it should.

    I note your unwillingness to answer the question I posed. No problem, but am I right in saying that says something about hierarchy, that its seen as dangerous to criticise a more senior photographer? If true, that’s problematic. That’s often why the practise of female circumcision still exists, because communities are unwilling to challenge their elders because of the negative consequences. You can’t blame them, it can be genuinely dangerous to rock the boat, and that’s one way that we are all controlled.

    As for the Washington Post’s ethics, they just haven’t turned up.

    If they really care about that stuff then they would never allow the photos to be seen out of context as they are on the NPPPA website. They would certainly explain why they were publishing the girls full name and face. But as you say, they don’t seem to have bothered. I find that inexplicable.

  7. trent says:

    Hey, no problem. This is a good debate to have, and I hope that it takes place at some point with the photographer. I’m not here to present a position and defend it.

    But to your hierarchy question, I have no problem criticizing senior or legendary photographers myself. But if I’m going to judge, I want to hear both sides first…even if I already know someone is guilty.

  8. Kevin says:

    This is a serious issue on which I’d like to hear a robust conversation. A few suggestion, Benjamin, if you haven’t done it already:

    1. Contact the Washington Post’s Ombudsman at;
    2. Raise it in the Washington Post’s discussion board dedicated to editorial judgment.
    3. Contact the Columbia Journalism Review at
    4. Contact National Public Radio’s “On the Media” program, which follows media issues in its weekly hour-long program.

  9. duckrabbit says:


    really appreciate you taking the time to write.

    I will look into your suggestions, but you know I am based in the UK not the USA and I don’t think any Editor in the USA will be interested in my thoughts! Also consider that these photos were voted for by leaders in the journalistic community and I think you can see which way the land lies.

    Congratulations on your own award which was richly deserved … people you can see it here:

  10. Kevin says:

    Thanks, Benjamin.

    Even if you’re right and the broader journalistic community is supportive of how this piece was handled, I imagine they may be quite willing to explain why. I would be surprised if this wasn’t a tough call for all involved, with considerable internal discussion. Who knows, some folks may welcome the opportunity to share how the decision was made, the arguments pro and con, and may even be heartened to know that some of the readership is interested in the decisions they are required to make.

  11. Jerome says:

    This is an issue that every photographer has to deal with when documenting these difficult stories. And I’m sure, as Trent posted, there were many discussions on how to go about the presentation of this article. At the root of this debate is whether or not it was ethical to use these images of the girl. In my opinion, I believe it is necessary because it puts a face to the issue. It shows those readers who aren’t educated in what FGM is, what it entails and how it affects the child as well as shows what the families are willing to put their children through in order to stay true to their cultural and religious beliefs. If her face wasn’t included, would it have changed the outcome of her situation? Wouldn’t her entire town know that most, if not all girls (depending of the size of their community) go through this procedure?
    What do we think about those late-night infomercials about starving children in “third-world” countries? I’m sure no parents want to have their children used as the face of poverty, but I don’t see any debates about the usage of those images.
    Or how about Donna Ferrato’s work on domestic violence? Her photos were of course adults, but her work was still of a highly personal nature that was and still is used on the lecture circuit and still published in books.
    The list can go on with child laborers, refugees, the southeast asian sex trade, or even Melissa Lyttle’s story on a feral child. When do we say that we are not allowed to photograph any children for news purposes because it might interfere with their privacy?
    Some see this as exploitation while others will see this as education. I don’t think either is completely wrong, but both are right. For me, I lean more toward education.
    It’s a thin line to walk and poses an interesting debate.

    • duckrabbit says:

      I’m sorry Jerome, I’m finding it really hard to understand how you think that it’s justifiable to abuse a child’s rights in order to put a ‘face to the issue’ so you can understand? How fucked up is that?

      Do you need to see pictures of a child actually being buggered to understand rape, is that really what you are suggesting, because that’s the logic of your argument? And if you do, as you seem to be suggesting, what does that say about you as a person that you would need to see that stuff to understand it? And beyond that even if you do have that need and desire, is there any justification for a photojournalist or magazine fulfilling your desire? And even beyond that what difference does it make to the practise of FGM if you understand or not? None.

      What if it was your mother being raped Jerome and I decided to take some pictures so people could understand what it’s really like? I mean as you say yourself the pictures of your mothers rape ‘wouldn’t change the outcome of her situation.’ So why not. Nevermind some people would get off off on the pictures, would enjoy them. What would you think of me if I did that? If you came up against your own argument in that way?

      Many, many women have spoken out in front of the camera on this issue. You can see there faces. Why don’t you ask them to show you their private parts, so you can take a picture, I mean how else are you going to understand? Or maybe you wouldn’t think it right to ask a woman to show her vagina just because she is speaking out about FGM? But on the other hand when she was seven years old it would be alright to pretend with her that she’s going to a party and then take pictures whilst she has her clitoris cut off. That would be fine because some bloke in America gets to ‘understand’ what’s really happening.

      What this comes down to is your right to see or take these images, because the truth is they do nothing to eradicate FGM. That will only come from education of the communities in which the act takes place.

      What I find incredible is that in an institution like the BBC, where we consistently covered subjects like this, there would be absolutely no need for a debate on this subject. I don’t think I worked with a single journalist who would have wanted to use, let alone defend that picture. It’s just such a no brainer. If we adopted the attitude you are suggesting we would have lost trust very quickly and the damage to our reputation would be profound. That is why such strong editorial values exist in the BBC.

      I had no idea that people in other journalistic communities had such a different grasp of ethics or so little appreciation of human rights.

      Dumbstruck. Genuinely.

      By the way I had a look at your work on Alzheimer pictures and found them very moving, congratulations for covering such an important story.

  12. Jerome says:

    I should have started off the post by separating the issues between the child rape discussion and the FGM issue.
    I believe the child rape image grossly crosses that ethical boundary just as Trent brought up in his first post.
    Now back to the issue at hand with the FGM issue, I’ve seen how a photo can change public perception and induce change. XDR-TB wasn’t on the radar for the general public. But James Natchwey shot some photos of the work that was currently being done and the funding started to go toward helping deal with the pandemic. That’s just one example.
    On a much smaller level, as you can see from my website, I’ve covered a lot of “chicken dinner” photo stories in my community. Many times we have done stories on with portraits of those affected by the organizations. It’s not until we focus on a person to put a face to the issue that the organizations received the most response. My paper is a huge supporter of the Wishing Star Foundation (a local group similar to the Make A Wish Foundation). We did stories every few months about funding needs, small features about wishes given after-the-fact, etc. But once I traveled with Alex and his family and documented their wish and showed the emotion they went through and that story got ran with solid photo play, the organization received a huge influx in funding and donations.
    Totally different situations, but this the kind of positive response I would hope for no matter what the story was.
    And what about those late-night infomercials about starving children in “third-world” countries, Donna Ferrato’s work on domestic violence or child laborers, refugees, the southeast asian sex trade, or even Melissa Lyttle’s story on a feral child? Do those stories need to be scrapped because they infringe upon article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
    I strongly believe that depending on what country, or continent, you are a journalist in, you will have a different gauge on the ethical meter as we are seeing here in this debate.
    I had an intern from Sweden who said some papers in her country have no problem staging situations for photos and passing them off as news. Or how about the infamous “Green Helmet” guy during the Lebanon/Israeli conflict? Many U.S. photojournalist that I know who were either there or editing work from the wires were upset that these made it onto the wire. While some shooters and editors overseas were debating the issue saying it was okay to document the “orchestration” of a news event.
    I see the value in capturing the moment in the story that will impact the readers/viewers most as Andrea did. But once again, this I can guarantee wasn’t taken lightly by the editorial board. Does the publication of these images make it right? Not for everybody and only time will tell how the images affect this little girl and the issue. If we are lucky, Andrea’s images will invoke some sort of change for the better for small children who have undergone the procedure or who will face the same fate later in years. At least if I was in the same situation, this is what I would hope for.
    I’m sorry if this got a little convoluted. This is a damn touchy debate for sure, but a good one to have.

  13. duckrabbit says:

    Sorry Jerome … you think rape is worse then having your vagina cut, your clitoris cut off, and then being sewn so that you might never feel pleasure in sex and so your husband has to cut you open on your wedding night?

    According to you ‘child rape’ grossly crosses the boundary but FGM doesn’t? Hello are you for real? It seems the article has clearly failed in developing your ‘understanding’ of FGM, the very thing that you claimed made it ‘necessary’.

    Clearly you are advocating for photojournalists to commit human rights abuses. That’s shocking. It’s also completely unnecessary. If as journalist you can’t find ways of effectively covering stories without abusing human rights then you work in a different profession to me.

    And if you think these images will result in change you are in cuckooland. How? Can you name me a single image in history published in the West that has affected cultural practices in developing countries villages? Think about all those nasty images of people dieing of aids in Africa, shocking hey. But your government has pursued a policy of taking away funding from programmes that supply condoms and make it a matter of contract that prostitutes must be treated as second class citizens or funding will be withdrawn.

    Once again I respect you work. I find your pictures very moving; some of the stuff that you capture is both much ignored and important. I would encourage people to go and look at your website to get a better sense of you as a person.

    The world needs photojournalists like yourself Jerome who care about stuff. I beg you though, please please don’t do it at a child’s expense. Having parts of your vagina cut off for some girls will be far more traumatic than rape. Fact.

  14. Charukesi says:

    Hi! Thanks for the comment on the countercurrents piece… I first read it on The Travel Photographer’s blog – and this is definitely an issue that needs to be discussed… (the urls of the blogs I have quoted / sourced info from are missing from the published piece – I have also written to the editors at countercurrents. org to rectify this)

  15. Sierra says:

    You should read the entire article. Even underage children are photographed and their names and photos published when they have something important to say here in the States, and she did have something important to say. Even at 7 yrs old she knows she is now different and didn’t want the procedure. And all the mother can say is that they don’t know why they do it, they just do it? Are you kidding me? You want to talk about human rights, how about that little girl’s right not to be brutalized and assaulted by her own mother?

    As copied directly from the story:

    Back home, Sheelan lay on the floor, unable to move or talk much. She clutched a bag filled with orange soda and candy and barely said anything except that she was in pain.

    But she became more animated when asked whether it was worth it to have the operation so her friends and neighbors would be comfortable eating food she prepared. “I would do anything not to have this pain, even if meant they would not eat from my hands,” she rasped slowly.

    “I just wish that I could be the way I was before the procedure,” she said.

    Now I want you to read that again:
    “I would do anything not to have this pain, even if meant they would not eat from my hands,” she rasped slowly.

    “I just wish that I could be the way I was before the procedure,” she said.

    A seven yr old who kept crossing her legs and DID NOT want them to even touch her was cut and bled. She knew that what they were doing was wrong. They lied to her about going to a party to even get her in the room. It’s heartbreaking to see the look of trust on her face right before they pounced on her.(Hey little girl would you like some candy?) Well, she got the candy alright and lost her innocence and trust along the way. Right?

    I’m fairly certain she probably wishes someone had protected and saved her. And isn’t all that concerned with her name and photo being published. In fact, i am going to have to say that she probably hopes that anything that would get those stupid crazy women to stop assaulting the other little girls would be OK. In fact she said it in her own words.

  16. Ben says:

    Sorry, erm, did this actually happen to that american boy? Or was that story just made up?

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