The most dangerous place…

So, this ad by anti-abortion group Life Always is pissing people off in New York City. And I mean really pissing them off.

Apparently there’s so much controversy that the ad is coming down. I like that. Score one for public pressure over an offensive media campaign.

What I found really interesting is the story that Tricia Fraser, the mother of the girl featured in the billboard, is demanding that her daughter’s image not be used. (HT ColorLines – News for Action) (Disclaimer: this story is from Fox News so there’s always a chance that it’s not actually true…)

Ms Fraser says she didn’t even know about the billboard until a friend told her about it a couple days after it was up.

I would never endorse something like that, especially with my child’s image,” she says. She did sign a release with a modeling agency, but never thought her daughter’s image would be used in an anti-abortion campaign focusing on African Americans, she says. “I want them to take it down.”

I applaud Ms Fraser for her reaction. I’m glad that she had access to the image and that she had the wherewithal, the courage and the strength to stand up and say “take it down.” I’m glad that the context in the US was such that she was able to do that.

It made me think about all the children’s photos taken in “developing” countries and then used externally (eg., not in that country) in various campaigns by INGOs and advocacy agencies. What if this child was from rural Uganda and her image was being used in a campaign around AIDS or child trafficking or another issue that can be stigmatizing? Would her mother have a real choice in how her image was used? Would she even know how the image was being used? Would she have the power to get the image removed if she didn’t agree with the campaign’s message or if she didn’t want her child associated with it? And how would she be viewed by the INGO or advocacy agency if she made a fuss about it?

How many aid agencies and their PR or marketing firms can say that they share their messaging and the use of children’s images with parents and communities to ensure that parents are OK with it? The images are likely taken with no remuneration for the children and families. When people ask to be paid, they are probably told that “we are a non-profit, we won’t be making any money from the image” or that the family should be grateful that they are able to give back to the INGO in this way (the INGO has been helping them a lot after all…), and that their image will allow the agency to raise money do some more good work.

I understand, in a way, how this all works and why it is how it is. And there is a lot of complicated stuff inherent there. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable about it.

People are not Props


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

11 responses to “The most dangerous place…

  • Andrea

    Controversial message aside, people need to understand what it means to sign a model release. That’s the mom’s mistake. The anti-abortion group did nothing wrong by using that girl’s photo. I’d question the mom who is willing to give an agency permission to sell her child’s photo to whoever they want.

  • Carol

    @Andrea I see your point but the point of the post, I think, is that Westerners don’t even ask permission.

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  • Pineappleskip

    I leapt to the comment box as this follows hot on the heels of PHD Worldwide’s recent social media faux pas involving children and a youtube video. It seriously damaged the very cred they were trying to build. See for example

    Amazes me that agencies still come out with this sort of guff. Should. Know. Better.

    Why debacle? Well, the net effect of the campaign’s going awry is that it has managed to portray as exploiting the very children they claim to protect.

    I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that the mother was negligent. How do we know that the mother was capable of understanding what the release meant, or that the agency didn’t misrepresent the nature of the release?

    Incidentally, in relation to the developing world mother, I’d probably add the question ‘would she even know that the photo was being used at all?’

    Cheers skip

  • angelica

    as an aid worker/ photographer particularly in love with children (both in the developed and developing world), this strikes a chord. Myself all I can do is try to do an honest representation of the person, a respectful one, and if anyone ever gives me a bad look, no matter how great the shot is, I put the camera down and walk away.

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  • J.

    I started out as a photographer, too. In my portraiture and studio illustration classes, we were all required to have signed model releases from everyone appearing in our photographs. The point was to learn good, ethical, legal practice. The photographer or the agency is supposed to explain the terms of the release and the ramifications of signing to the model (or the models’ guardian, in this case). With in the information we have now, it’s hard to say whether the modeling agency was somehow negligent or Ms. Fraser was somehow unenlightened.

    What I personally find interesting is the question of where this takes us for humanitarian aid marketing: potentially in the direction of having paid professional models posing as third-world poor (including costumes & makeup) in NGO marketing?

    • Shotgun Shack

      hmmm, that would be mighty interesting. remember that whole scandal about SlumDog not paying the kids and such? and wasn’t there something with Blood Diamond too?

    • Robin

      I know little to nothing about LIFE ALWAYS but question what on earth they think they’re doing…

      I assume a responsible advocacy or action-based group would have found a mother who had a child but had thought about having an abortion. Mother X is now sooo relieved that she didn’t have the abortion and can share in her wonderful child’s life that she gives proper and FULLY informed consent. LIFE ALWAYS would then have mother X’s back story on a web site for people who want to know more. Suddenly it’s personal and real and grounded in an event that actually happened. Tell the back story well and honestly and you’ll move people – make them take stock. In a nutshell, takes a bit more work but much more honest and probably more effective.

      If this group really takes itself seriously, it should do some work and talk to some people and find a real story and explain to the mother (and maybe father?) what they intend to do and why. Buying a photo from an agency reeks of lazy short-cut marketing and has backfired on them in a way that serves them right.

      Same applies for the developing country child, although I think an important distinction needs to be made. Is the photo used for ‘reportage’ to break a news story or for fundraising/donor comms/marketing/campaigning. The level of consent I’d suggest is rather different (but always essential).

      I feel uncomfortable seeing photos of children from the developing world in the latter type of usage when there is no background story. Who is this person? Why is he/she smiling or crying or thin of fat or in hospital or whatever…? How long has it been going on for? Are his/her friends going through the same problems? And all the better if it’s told in his/her own words.

      If it’s just a photo without context I assume I’m supposed to extrapolate that all children in that country (or continent in the case of Africa) are in the same boat. Again, it’s just lazy communication and organisations that engage in such lazy comms deserve to be criticised or worse… lose their supporters who demand a bit more honesty.

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