LensCulture and the Commodification of Rape

Where to begin? Magnum Photos and LensCulture are running a photo competition. One of those where you give them lots of money and in return if you’re one of the lucky ones they give you “exposure”.

Let’s just cut to the chase. There’s no way of dressing this up. In order to promote the competition, LensCulture used a photo of a trafficked child sex slave being raped.

Yes, you read that right. No, this is not some kind of sick wind up.

I’m not going to post the picture here but in it the photographer is standing over the rapist. We see his naked back and the back of his head. We can see the girl’s face. She’s looking away from the camera, obviously distressed, but she is fully identifiable. Her name is ‘Beauty’ (you can see it here where the photo has been altered to protect the girl’s identity).

Only the rapist is given the privilege of anonymity.

The text wrapped around the photo urges you my photography friends to not ‘miss out’ on ‘recognition’ by entering the Magnum Photography Awards:

The post had been shared widely before it was taken down (only at the photographer’s request who specifically told LensCulture not to use the photo). Magnum also featured more of Souvid Datta’s project on the header of the competition website.

Can someone explain the mentality at play here? Is it because photographers look at the picture and think: “Oh look there’s a child in a cage crying. Maybe if I enter a picture of a trafficked child being raped or caged up and crying I can also get myself exposure.”

Pure and simple this is the commodification of child rape. Does the photography world get any more f**ked up than this?

In the UK, taking and sharing this photo would be a criminal offence. It’s a criminal offence even to name survivors of sexual crimes unless they have expressly given permission, and in this case, a vulnerable child is not able to consent.

It’s my guess that if human rights activist (formerly of Amnesty) Rob Godden hadn’t pointed out how indecent the use of the image was it would still be being shared on Facebook. At the time of writing LensCulture have offered zero response. They were totally disinterested in the many comments on their post pointing out how abusive the image is.

So let me put it straight to Jim Casper (Editor), Kamran Mohsenin (CEO) and Laura Sackett (Creative Director), what else am I to presume other than that your company has an horrendously warped and racist relationship with the world? One in which you are only able to see photos, photographers and the people in their pics as objects of profit.

Did anyone at LensCulture consider that the children of ‘Beauty’ might need protecting from the trauma of seeing pictures of their Mother forced into sex spread across the Internet? And what is going on in your heads that LensCulture would seek to profit from a picture of a child sex slave being raped? Seriously. What? What is going on in there?

That girl by the way has a story (found on Datta’s website and told to him three years after the photo was taken). Read it:

Aged 12, her family arranged her marriage with an abusive 23 year-old man. She went on to have her first child aged 12. The following year, she fled following her mother’s death taking refuge with her elder sister, then 19. Within two months, her brother-in-law attempted to force himself upon her, yet her sister did nothing, instead demanding she leave their house. It was on a train to Dhaka, in search of escape and work, that Beauty and her one year-old son eventually met their trafficker. ‘A vast, wiry-haired…wild-eyed woman’ promised her a menial job with substantial renumeration; minutes later Beauty’s water bottle had been spiked with a sedative. When she awoke she found herself in a half-way house in Nonchapota, on the Bangladesh-India border, awaiting her transfer and sale to the brothels of Sonagachi.

Beauty embraces her two sons – Nayan, 5, and Ridoy, 4. The first was born when she was 12, and the second, a year later after her first few months working in the brothel. The two have been held as bargaining chips by her previous brothel owner when Beauty refused her work as a ‘Chukri’ (forced sex-slave). Now they both stay in a nearby NGO shelter which Beauty visits every few days. “Holding them, tight, close to me is the only thought that gets me through the day… I don’t need saving. I died a long time ago. It’s them who need saving. It’s for them that I do this work. I hope I can at least save them from this world… that I can give them some of the important chances in life that I never had.

This is a horrific case where one abuse, one exploitation has been heaped on another. Where a real human, with a real story, real children and real feelings is reduced to clickbait for a sh**ty competition in which you can trade your soul for exposure.

All for $60.

To those who argue, from a place of absolute privilege (the photographer went to Harrow) that we need to see photos like this to make people care, who are you mixing with? Because no-one I know needs to see a photo of a child being raped to care. If that’s you. Sincerely. Seek help.

LensCulture have sort of apologized on their Facebook page:

According to them Datta acted ethically. They then cite UNICEF’s guidelines on working with children. Which is kind of crazy because Datta’s work is completely in contravention of them:

Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation.

Datta has also issued a statement. It’s pretty shocking. Basically she made him do it. I don’t think that argument would stand up in court.

I’ll let Robert Godden have the last word.

Update on 5/2/17: LensCulture has released this statement to PetaPixel:

LensCulture would like to formally state that we, alone, made a terrible mistake in judgment last Friday by publishing on our Facebook page an image of sexual violence against a young girl. To compound our error, the offending image was shown out of context and used in relation to the promotion of our ongoing photography competition. LensCulture takes full responsibility for the bad decision and the inappropriate context in which the image was published.

LensCulture would like to make clear that Magnum Photos, its members and its staff had nothing to do with the selection or publication of the image, and we would like to expressly exonerate the Magnum Photos organization from any responsibility in this situation.

How could this happen? During the course of the photo competition, LensCulture’s editors review incoming submissions to the competition on a daily basis and select roughly six images per day to feature in posts on Facebook. Typically, we go through a multi-step review process before publishing submitted entries, but in this case the multi-step review was not followed. The post, which would have normally been flagged as completely inappropriate in this context, was published for a short time before we removed it from Facebook. However, in the time that it remained visible on Facebook (including re-posts by others), it has created much debate.

We’ve made our internal review process more rigorous as a result of this very unfortunate situation, and we plan to do everything we can to avoid situations like this in the future.

We are sorry for our several errors in this matter, and we apologize to all involved.

— Jim Casper
Editor-in-Chief, LensCulture

About the author: Benjamin Chesterton is the Production Director at Duckrabbit, a film production and training company based in the UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.