Visual Choices: Covering Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones

From the Tigray War in Ethiopia to on-going asymmetric war in Colombia, sexual violence is a reality of conflict around the world. Reporting on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is fraught with ethical issues and the potential for psychological harm to both source and reporter. The Dart Centre is releasing a new resource to deepen journalists’ understanding of CRSV and to help them report on this complex issue ethically and effectively.

Visual choices are a vital part of this. Photographs can be a powerful means of connecting with an audience, but clichéd images can perpetuate stereotypes and in the digital era, live on the internet in perpetuity. 

To help navigate some of these issues, we spoke with documentary photographer Nina Berman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University who has covered conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and has written on the ethics of photography in conflict and in peacetime. 

Samira Shackle: Reporting on CRSV is a hugely challenging assignment, What advice would you give to a photographer doing this work for the first time?

Nina Berman: Your primary motivation should be not to do any further harm. Ask yourself: are there ways to photograph this story where I'm not putting the survivor at risk? Do I have to show the whole person or their space? How can I be more creative? Can I insist on giving them anonymity?

Consent must be informed – so you explain who you're working for, where the picture is going. If you're not working for anybody, and you're an independent journalist, and you don't have a publication that's committed, you have to tell the people that you don't know where it's going, but these are your intentions, that you will try and track them down to get their consent before it's published.

Question everything that you think might be true. You can't assume that because you show up, you deserve the right to photograph. That concept is really important.

SS: And where are photojournalists and editors most likely to go wrong?

NB: In their desire to show the horror and brutality of this, they can sometimes aim for pictures that have shock value – because they believe strongly in the story and want to shock the reader into paying attention. Or they insist on imposing other editorial demands, or visualizations, without having a real conversation with the subject and the people around that subject.

Once the image is out there, there's really no reeling it back in. Journalists know this, but people who are fleeing for their lives, who've been traumatized, may not have that center stage in their mind.

SS: You’ve spoken elsewhere about images of rape survivors being used as an “aesthetic lure”, disconnected from the survivors' own stories or from the broader context.

NB: Survivors, of course, want to testify to the crimes committed against them; to have a record and hold someone accountable. But certain visual treatments aestheticize the body of the survivor, which is problematic when it's a crime against the body and the person.

The other thing is that rape is usually not the only crime that's committed in these situations. People are murdered, people are tortured, people have their homes burned down, people are forced to flee. Only concentrating on the rape is, I think, a big mistake. Rape doesn't happen in a vacuum – it is part of the conflict. I could see a journalist doing a story of a person who witnessed 50 family members dismembered and killed – and was raped. And the only thing they would write about is the rape. It sets up a hierarchy of pain between different categories of traumatized people, which I don't think is a good thing. If you're going to talk to a rape survivor and you're going to photograph them, your questions shouldn't only – or necessarily -- be: "Who raped you? How many times? Are you pregnant? Did you have an abortion?" It should instead acknowledge that the sexual violence is most likely part of a larger story and that story is important to hear, to understand, and to include.

SS: How can an image take in all of that? What would a more contextualized image look like?

NB: Do you want to show that there's a community there or not? Often, rape survivors are photographed alone. If there are people around them, those people can be in the story. Now, maybe the person has been rejected by the community because of rape, and that's something else. But I don't think that this "face staring into the camera" look helps the survivor.

Photojournalists and editors often believe that you need to convey that sense of brutalization. But in stories about conflict rape, I would try to get away from the pain and victimhood, to show that they exist, that they stand there, that they have survived.

SS: How should photographers deal with anonymity?

NB: I think, especially on the internet, that anonymity should be prioritized. Pictures can come back to hurt the person. I reported from Bosnia in late 1992 and early 1993. I asked consent of everyone I photographed. Some wanted their faces and names used. Others did not. A few years ago, some of my Bosnia pictures were published on a blog dedicated to remembering the war. Not long after, I received an email from one of the women in the pictures. She was scared, angry and desperate. Married now, she had never shared her rape story with her husband. My pictures, floating around the internet, were for her a ticking time bomb.

I think anonymity should be the default, rather than seen as something to resist. It can be hard to determine when conflict stops. Are those combatants ever gone? Do they just assimilate into post-conflict society? Will your picture then be used against you or your family later in life?

The pushback I've heard is, "stop infantilizing people”. But it has nothing to do with taking a patronizing attitude. It has to do with understanding how the circulation of images work, and how impossible it is to control an image on the web once it's out there. I imagine most journalists doing a story about conflict rape are going in not wanting to do further harm.

When you're dealing with women who have decided to put themselves out there as activists, that's a different story; or if a person is legitimately in a stable place, and feels they can make that decision. Then I don't think you need anonymity. Journalists are so fixated on getting new and original sources, that maybe they forget the value of actually talking to someone who's three years out from the experience, who may have been interviewed in the past, but is in a more stable place.

SS: What kind of afterlives can a photograph have, beyond the initial assignment?

NB: Pictures taken on assignment might go in an archive, sometimes with restrictions, often with none. This means 10 years on, someone could say, "Oh, I need a picture of a rape victim", and then that picture comes up and is sold. I don't think that should be happening anymore. Photographers have to be open about it when they're talking to a subject. Ask them: "Would you allow your picture to be used beyond this publication?" Consent is not just: "Can I take your picture?" When anonymity is the default, it's a lot easier.

SS: How important is it for photographers working on this kind of material to be aware of visual histories such as colonization and enslavement?

NB: People today have a better understanding of visual culture. We have an audience which is engaged and alert and makes connections, sometimes very quickly, with how current images reproduce or subvert harmful historical framing.  And so it’s incumbent on photographers to become more aware of the medium’s history.

I can see how a photographer might not have all these references in their head while in the field, but an editor surely should take seriously their responsibility to be aware of historical context and ethical concerns. It's all a part of visual literacy.

SS: In the digital era, there is so much emphasis on images. In that context, how can editors be more responsible about how these stories are presented?

NB: Journalism is driven by an attention economy which means quieter, more complex images aren’t necessarily the ones you will see leading stories on social media.  And so when determining how to promote stories around CRSV, I would encourage editors and photographers to think very carefully about whether the face of a survivor who is identified as a survivor should be posted on social media. Is there another image, more anonymous, which can be used instead?

Often journalists who've seen a lot of very traumatic things feel frustrated that their work is not changing the world in the way that they hope it will. If only their pictures were more intense, if people could really see the full horror, then somehow the world would wake up and do something. But that’s not how change happens. A picture does not change the world.

SS: When it comes to communicating with survivors, what about this idea that it will somehow be empowering for them to be photographed?

NB: Let me be clear – images of conflict rape and rape survivors need to be made and widely seen. They just need to made differently in ways that protect subjects, that respect context, that don’t perpetuate clichéd stereotypes, and aren’t presented by media companies as some kind of magical elixirs for survivors. There's this disturbing trend I've seen of this idea of sisterhood between Western journalists, who may themselves have been sexually assaulted or raped, and women elsewhere who've been raped or assaulted. The suggestion is that through the telling and publication of their story, that that person has now been seen, and that being seen and heard is empowering. Empowering on whose terms? Does one have to be seen by a Western audience to be empowered?

SS: What kind of visual treatments do work?

NB: All portraits are collaborative in some way, because the person has to say yes, and they have to stand still. But it's different when you're actually doing a creative collaboration. That means that you believe that the person you're photographing has creativity, they have an imagination, they have something artistic and essential to offer. That means saying: "What picture would you like to make? Is there a place you go to that makes you feel better? Is there an object you love? Or is there a person you want to bring with you?" It means bringing the person into the process from the beginning as a full equal and following their direction.

Since most journalists now are shooting digital, you should show the picture to the person. Do they like it? Do they feel comfortable? Do they have suggestions on how to do it better? This is something journalists are told not to do, but I think it should be standard practice when photographing vulnerable and traumatized people

We consistently photograph survivors alone. Can we photograph in a way that shows the person is not just stranded out there? Even if it's showing them holding someone's hand, or having a nurse or caretaker looking at them, your empathy can come through the picture by looking at how someone else has embraced this person.

I tell my students that whenever you're ethically unsure of what you're doing, ask yourself, "Would I want to be photographed this way? Would I want my family members to be photographed this way?" And it makes people stop and think. It really does.