A reportage on child prostitution available in the photo agency’s catalogue has aroused controversy about the “morality” of his images. It endangered the freedom of expression and the role of photojournalism – by Andrea Monti – originally published in Italian by Wired.it
Andy Day, a contributor to F-stoppers, an online community dedicated to photography, publishes an article entitled “Magnum Photos Is Selling Images of Alleged Child Sexual Abuse on Its Website”. He denounces that the world’s most famous photojournalist agency makes available through its website images of “alleged” child sexual abuse documented in a 1989 report by David Alan Harvey.
The author of the “discovery” states verbatim that “creating a sexually explicit photograph of a child constitutes an act of child sexual abuse. Under U.K. law, if a photograph exists, a crime has been committed. In the U.S., Federal law prohibits the production, distribution, importation, reception, or possession of any image of child pornography” and then complains that “numerous photographs appear to have been taken without the subject’s consent”. In summary, the accusations are that Magnum Photos is to sell child pornography photos taken without the knowledge of the people portrayed. The news has also been bounced by other well-known sites such as Petapixel. Moreover, in a subsequent article Day goes so far as to ask for the interruption of the professional relationship with the author of the photographs and their destruction.
Without prejudice to Day’s right to have his opinions, his statements are simply wrong.
First of all – and considering that Magnum Photos does not work in the field of pornography – the journalist’s job is to document reality and denounce, with word and image, abuse and violence. The purpose of Harvey’s photographs, therefore, was not to feed the illegal circuit of dirty images but to exercise a prerogative that every Western Constitution recognizes: the right/duty to inform. Harvey’s photos are, yes, obscene, but because of the degradation, they expose in the general indifference telling about a denied childhood and a marked future. No one can think that those photos are child pornography, just as no one could claim that the photos of the victims of the Nazi atrocities in the death camps are an incitement to necrophilia.
Even the accusation that the photos were taken without the knowledge of the portrayed subjects is meaningless. When a journalistic investigation is carried out in dangerous environments and conditions, the very least safety measure is to the reporter to document what he sees without the subjects with whom he interacts be aware of it. This happens all the time for news reports and in television broadcasts that use covert filming as an essential element of their investigations. And, on the other hand, in the much less extreme case of street photography, documentary activity presupposes the portrait of people who do not know they are being photographed. If this were not the case, the timeless images of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paolo Di Paolo’s street photography published by Il Mondo by Mario Pannunzio and all the others who, like them, have documented life in all its manifestations would be illegal.
As a consequence, Harvey did not commit any wrongdoing in taking those photos, Magnum did not violate any rules in making available that part of its archive and Andy Day made statements without legal basis. Nonetheless, he continues to disseminate them, without even asking (because otherwise, he would have given an account in his articles) a qualified legal opinion.
This apparently trivial affair, destined to be forgotten within a few days, is the last in order of time to replicate the same script: specific ethical conditions on what is or is not illegal, promoted unilaterally to the level of legal validity, applied by the Internet People’s Court – or by self-appointed judges – who without any quality or reason invokes a rough justice based not on the law but on what they consider right: it is the principle of cancel culture.
There are countless examples also in the field of advertising and photography, from the controversy over the commercial where an asteroid hits a mom to advertise a snack, to the public apology for a session that advertised photographic lenses during a cosplay event, to the withdrawal of an advertising campaign for a sports car considered “sexually suggestive”. Nothing escapes the new inquisitors, ready to unleash storms of public scandal with post and tweets, mechanically amplified by the media.
The damages caused by this global Directorate, guardian-at-large of the world morality, are well explained in a letter entitled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate that intellectuals and scientists, including J. K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and Salman Rushdie, have published in Harper’s Magazine, which has also been much talked about here in Wired.
Regardless of the merits of the individual cases, the result is a continuous narrowing of what can be said without fear of reprisals from employers, clients or institutions. This is yet another example of the way in which the permanent court of public outrage, the judiciary of global electronic democracy, works, which pairs up with the legislative court of the parliament of direct democracy; and which does not even require the existence of an executive, because the will of the people is applied without mediation, forcing bodies and institutions to take punitive measures not on the merits of the fact, but to silence the crowd.
Of course, no one can question the right of anyone to make the most severe criticism of what is said or written. But it is paradoxical that the Internet, born from a dream of freedom, has become the most powerful instrument of censorship in the hands not of a rogue government, multinationals or Big Brother, but in those of an undifferentiated mass of subjects whose only authority, often, comes from having a profile on a social network.