Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been rightly challenged in recent weeks, both internally and externally, about the use of sensitive photography involving patients in our care. As the global directors of communication for MSF, we want to thank those who have highlighted problematic images and questioned our practices.
This scrutiny has prompted us to take some immediate action, as noted in a statement last month by MSF’s International President. We are also engaging in deeper reflection about the ways we portray people caught in crisis.
Our vital work of bearing witness must be guided by humanitarian principles and medical ethics. We must always respect the dignity and agency of the people we treat.
We are now working across multiple fronts to better manage the collection, use, dissemination, and storage of photographs and video taken at our medical projects. This includes visual material commissioned by MSF as well as content gathered by news organizations and independent photographers. We have a clear duty to protect the safety and wellbeing of patients in our care.
Here’s an update on some of the actions we are taking:
We are accelerating a full review of the MSF media archive, containing nearly 200,000 visual assets. This project, initiated in late 2021, is scheduled to be completed by December 2022. We have mobilized staff members to tag sensitive imagery according to criteria including protection of minors, nudity, stereotyping, offensive or upsetting material, security risk, lack of dignity or unbearable suffering. We are setting up a multidisciplinary panel of experts, including external advisers, to conduct the final review. All imagery will be preserved for the historical record, however any content violating our standards will no longer be available for publication on MSF channels or for future use by external media.
We are reaching out to photo agencies and to individual photographers holding the copyright to sensitive images taken at our projects. It is important to note that MSF does not control the usage rights or profit from the sale of these images by photo agencies. Nevertheless, we are asking companies involved to comply with our request to restrict access to problematic imagery, including sensitive photographs involving minors and victims of abuse and exploitation. Some of the images flagged have been quickly restricted or removed from commercial platforms, while others remain unresolved. We are developing a more systematic process for addressing this complex issue.
We are reviewing our contracting and licensing procedures and terms of reference for photographers and videographers visiting MSF projects. We believe in the power of photojournalism to highlight the stories of people facing conflict and crisis. However, as a medical organization, our primary obligation is to respect the dignity of patients receiving care at our facilities and uphold the principle to “do no harm”.
We are undertaking a thorough review of our content production guidelines, including to uphold diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have already made some revisions, such as clarifying our informed consent processes and adding specific language to protect minors in our care.
We will strengthen training and development for MSF content producers, communications and fundraising teams. We aim to ensure a deeper understanding of our content production guidelines and share best practices for gathering informed consent. We are committed to an ongoing process of learning and reflection with survivors of trauma, medical experts, ethicists, journalists, and academics.
MSF remains dedicated to bearing witness as an essential part of our social mission and working with patients and communities to tell their own stories.
We welcome public attention to these important issues, which provides an opportunity for us to improve our policies and practices. Anyone wishing to report sensitive imagery related to MSF’s work can contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.