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A Question of Identity: Telling Stories Without Showing Faces

Since 2011, Forced Migration Review has chosen to avoid showing close-up images or faces. In the latest from our series on Picturing Refugees, editors Marion Couldrey and Jenny Peebles tell Refugees Deeply why.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Unhcr rf231329 high res

While many individuals and organizations in the refugee arena are uncomfortable with dominant images, very few have responded with concrete action.

The reasons for the predominance of “boats and camps” visuals are clear: humanitarian organizations have the imperative to raise funds, photographers must meet editors’ needs and editors must attract public attention.

In our continuing series on Picturing Refugees – which began with a discussion between a working photographer and an active researcher – we talk to Marion Couldrey and Jenny Peebles, co-editors of the Oxford-based Forced Migration Review. One of the most respected and widely read print publications in its field, the FMR has pioneered its own ethical approach to the imagery it publishes. It involves tradeoffs between emotional connection and ethics, which they discuss in detail.

The editors have also made their internal policy publicly available and invited peers to discuss and develop the guidelines it lays out.

Refugees Deeply: How does Forced Migration Review approach the imagery it uses to illustrate each issue and can you tell us about the thinking behind this?

Marion Couldrey and Jenny Peebles: We have used photos in FMR since almost its earliest days back in 1987 (black-and-white initially, moving to full color throughout the magazine in 2006). Back then, as indeed now, we wanted FMR to look different from academic journals – including images is one way of doing that.

We also want readers to connect more immediately with the people, the places and the issues being discussed in the articles. We may use an image to give a sense of place, to illustrate the enormity of a situation or to demonstrate resilience and humanity in difficult situations. We use images to break up text and to make the magazine more accessible. But then there’s the tricky question of faces…

We know that people’s faces are important to bring facts, ideas and feelings to life. We know that in general the photographers and agencies whose images we use (and to whom we are extremely grateful) will have sought permission from those being photographed. However, a few years ago we began to question our assumption that it is therefore always appropriate for us to use these photos in FMR.

We think there are cases where individuals would not wish their image to be used in such a way that identifies them forever with a low point in their lives but that is, in all likelihood, temporary. It’s about dignity; it’s also about trying to be sure that showing someone’s image will not – at some time and in some way that could not be foreseen – damage them in some way.

FMR is distributed around the world in print and is freely accessible online – not just on our own website but on other websites and in public libraries and resource centers. In reality, we have no way of being sure that the people in the photographs could have, or would have, given truly informed consent for their image to be used by us. Would they have understood that their image might be seen by people all around the world, and that it would live on in the virtual world for potentially many, many years? And what about the power relations between photographer – often from an agency offering assistance – and subject?

So in 2011 we decided that we should whenever possible protect the identity of people shown in FMR – unless we feel that this precaution is unnecessary – by avoiding close-up images of faces and/or, where necessary, pixelating faces.

It means continually making judgment calls on what we think is OK and what isn’t. In the image below you see, on the left, the face in profile of Sister Angélique Namaika, a UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award winner; we didn’t pixelate her face because we thought she was a public figure. The central figure is of a woman who was abducted and raped by the Lord’s Resistance Army; she faces away from us so she cannot be identified. Her young son’s face is clearly visible, though. Is that OK? We decided he was young enough when the photo was taken that he would not now – some years after the photo was taken – be easily identifiable from that image.

UNHCR/Brian Sokol

However, we might pixelate a child’s face where we think the child has distinctive facial characteristics that might carry through to adulthood. See for example the image of a baby in FMR 57. We look back at older issues of FMR and see images that we thought were evocative, moving, powerful – but which we wouldn’t use now, for exactly those reasons we’ve outlined above, reasons that now guide our image choice. Look at the cover images of FMR 30 on Burma, our special issue on the 10th anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and FMR 25 on people trafficking.

But there are great photos out there that don’t identify people. We love this image that we used in FMR 36 alongside an article on sexual violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We felt the image was respectful, gave the women personality and showed their mutual support, as well as being in itself a vivid and colorful image.

IRIN/Aubrey Graham

And here, in FMR 54 a Syrian refugee himself covers the faces of his two sons in the photos he holds, fearing recrimination should they be found:

UNHCR/E.Dorfman

We realize that there is no perfect, correct way to protect people’s identity. The people in the photos whose identity we conceal may feel that this robs them of their full identity. It may also lessen the impact of the articles in FMR. And it certainly makes it harder now to select images, particularly cover images which need to be striking.

Refugees Deeply: What kind of reactions have you had from peers, other publications or agencies to your image policy? Has there been interest in discussing the need or usefulness of policies on imagery?

Couldrey and Peebles: At the time when we drafted our photo policy, we shared it with photo library staff at some international agencies but received limited feedback. It may be that they didn’t agree, or that adopting a similar policy would be deemed to be potentially detrimental to advocacy and fund-raising efforts.

One international agency, however, have since told us they have used copies of FMR for internal discussions about use of images, looking at different images used in FMR alongside what we say in our photo policy. They even challenged us about one image, suggesting that we should have pixelated the faces of two of the people in it – and we agreed that they were right. We always welcome feedback, and usually include a mention of our photo policy in each issue of FMR.

We’ve seen one or two agencies more recently undertake studies of their own image use in order to guide and standardize their in-house policies, which is welcome. And it was great to see Refugees Deeply holding a discussion about it in March.

Refugees Deeply: What advice would you offer to photographers or fellow editors when it comes to images related to forced migration?

Couldrey and Peebles: There are so many very similar images being used again and again. The rise to prominence of the refugee/migrant “crisis” in Western media, for example, has been accompanied by an explosion in the use of images of sea crossings. Of course, these experiences need to be documented but images of other aspects of the story might be equally or more evocative and informative.

Try to find a different bit of the story. Try to include some quirky, thought-provoking shots. For FMR, we don’t always want the message of an image to be immediately obvious. We want readers to think. For example, when we chose this cover image for FMR 53 – focusing on local communities – we wanted people to think beyond the more obvious images of refugee communities. With images like this, we often include an extended caption/commentary to explain why we chose them.

UNHCR/Sebastian Rich

This was our caption for the image: In Caqueta, Colombia, a community leader took the initiative to help her community find a safe, dignified and healthy place to live after they were displaced by guerrillas. In contrast to most of the images and metaphors that spring to mind when we look for an illustration of “protection” – a sheltering roof, maybe, or a helping hand – to us this picture reflects a displaced community striving to rekindle the vestiges of normality. It speaks also of resourcefulness and creativity, and of a place that someone can flourish in, a place where there is belonging and safety: the coming together of community and protection. “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” as the film star Audrey Hepburn once said.

Refugees Deeply: Many of the images we see of refugees and migrants are commissioned by aid organizations or advocacy groups who rely on arresting imagery to capture public attention. Does this have to be problematic?

Couldrey and Peebles: There are surely basic guidelines about dignity and respect that can be followed by all photographers and all those commissioning and using their work. Photographers will naturally seize opportunities to take dramatic images – but it’s then up to the commissioning agencies to decide whether and how to use them themselves and whether to release them into the public domain for download or other use.

One image we saw recently on an agency’s Flickr site was of a rainbow over a refugee camp in Jordan: beautiful, dramatic – but for FMR’s purposes it felt too much more like an advertisement for a holiday camp than an image of a densely packed camp for people fleeing conflict.

We used an image for the front cover of our issue on “Destination: Europe” [see main image]. It’s stunning, beautifully lit – part painting, part theater. It reflects the misery of this family’s situation but it also reflects the humanity and the warmth of the family group.

Selecting images for use in FMR is a time-consuming, challenging and often frustrating process (and we’d love to have more space to do full justice to the images). But it’s a process that time and time again also serves to shock us out of any weariness we might feel about the minutiae of publication. The images we see remind us of the importance of what FMR tries to do, and help us focus on keeping displaced people at the center of our work.

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