Photo of the Year

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The UNICEF photo of the year is indeed heartbreaking. The 11-year-old girl in the photo is about to be raped by the man sitting next to her — a 40-year-old who purchased her for marriage. It’s a painful and provocative image, and UNICEF certainly chose well.

But, as usual, I’m disappointed by some of the responses to the choice — specifically, this one, titled “How a UNICEF Photo Makes the West’s Heart Ache.”

As if everyone in the “East” promotes child marriage, male dominance and rape.

As if no one in the “West” does.

The author is right when he says that cultural relativism takes us down a dangerous path; he is right that we must draw lines. But he’s wrong when he presumes that people in the “East” are backwards child-marrying barbarians, while people in the West are enlightened and feminist. He is wrong when he argues that it is Westerners, and only Westerners, who can go in and save these backwards desert-dwellers. He is wrong when he presumes that none of the “Eastern” people are doing the work themselves.

Barbarity breeds barbarity and inhumanity breeds inhumanity. The Middle East, North Africa, and the other regions that the author is ostensibly referring to are full of countries scarred by repeated wars and choked by colonial pasts. Does that justify child marriage and rape? Of course not. Should we criticize those practices? Absolutely. But not at the expense of silencing and ignoring the on-the-ground work being done by human rights activists in their own countries. Not by drawing an increasingly thick line between “us” and “them.” Not while pretending we are so morally superior.

Here are some of the other picture nominations:

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Second-place honors went to GMB Akash, of Bangladesh, whose winning photo shows a 12-year-old boy toiling in a Bangladeshi brickyard. UNICEF studies conclude that 4.7 million children between five and 14 years of age are involved in child labor in that country.

Child laborers all over the world make products that you and I regularly consume.

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“A Mother’s Journey”: The American photographer Renee C. Byer took this picture as part of a series about a single mother with five children and a son suffering from terminal cancer. He died in 2006.

The United States has one of the worst health care systems in the developed world. People get sick and people die every day because they lack access to adequate health care.

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Finbarr O’Reilly recieved an honorable mention for his photo “A House of Hope,” an image of Lopez Vidal, right, and Aron Masahuka, both afflicted with polio, languishing in an ill-equipped hospital in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo remains deeply afflicted by its colonial past. When the exploitative Belgian colonial power pulled out, it left 30 Congolese university graduates to fill 4,000 vacated senior administrative positions. The region remains crippled by civil war and genocide.

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Hatem Moussa won an honorable mention for “Life in Gaza”: Palestinian children were rushed from a car into a hospital after their homes were hit by Israeli shelling in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya in April, 2006. An eight-year-old child was killed in the attack and 13 other children were injured.

This one should be pretty self-explanatory. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States has definitively chosen a team, and we turn a blind eye to the casualties, humiliations and abuses suffered by the “other side.”

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Joseline Ingabire, 37, an HIV-positive Rwandan woman, is pictured with her daughter Leah Batamuliza, 11. This photo by Jonathon Torgovnik accompanied a story in Newsweek magazine about women who were raped during the Rwandan civil war and their children today.

The Clinton strategy in Rwanda essentially came down to “do nothing.” And our refusal to give the UN any real power prevented them from properly intervening.

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Musa Sadulayew made this photo as a part of a series called “Chechnya’s Forgotten Children.”

Chechnya has been engaged in a brutal civil war for years. Pro-Moscow forces in Chechnya regularly torture detainees, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

There are several other finalists. Check them out.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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21 Responses to Photo of the Year

  1. james says:

    Regarding the picture choice. I’m not sticking up for child marriage or criticising UNICEF for highlighting it, but do you think they could have chosen a slightly less racially tinged picture? There must be plenty of pictures like this to choose from. Did they have to go for the one with a really dark and swarthy and bearded and extravagantly turbaned man and a girl so pale she looks white? I do feel heartbroken when I look at the picture, but I also feel manipulated because they’re very deliberately playing into a whole series of colonial stereotypes about the horrors of a fate worse than death.

    …he’s wrong when he presumes that people in the “East” are backwards child-marrying barbarians, while people in the West are enlightened and feminist.

    He doesn’t do this, you’re just using an attack you’ve cut and pasted from dozens of other posts without thinking. Almost the whole article is devoted to slagging off western cultural relativists who he says don’t see a problem with child marriage. The ‘Easterns’ actually get off much lighter because they’re just obliviously following tradition. It’s the backward westerners who he’s putting the boot into.

    The Middle East, North Africa, and the other regions that the author is ostensibly referring to are full of countries scarred by repeated wars and choked by colonial pasts. Does that justify child marriage and rape? Of course not…

    What complete bollocks. Child marriage tends to be supressed in places with colonial pasts (see India, Pakistan) and legal in places without them (see Afghanistan, Iran). Like it or not, this is a problem for which a good dose of war and colonialism is a pretty effective solution.

  2. Mandolin says:

    Child marriage tends to be supressed in places with colonial pasts (see India, Pakistan) and legal in places without them (see Afghanistan, Iran). Like it or not, this is a problem for which a good dose of war and colonialism is a pretty effective solution.

    Uh huh. Which is why child marriage doesn’t happen in India at all, and certainly not just a lot under the table.

    You’re an ignorant idiot, James.

  3. james says:

    At least I know that suppressed doesn’t mean ‘doesn’t happen’.

  4. Jill says:

    What complete bollocks. Child marriage tends to be supressed in places with colonial pasts (see India, Pakistan) and legal in places without them (see Afghanistan, Iran). Like it or not, this is a problem for which a good dose of war and colonialism is a pretty effective solution.

    Huh.

    Child marriage occurs most often in some of the poorest countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In parts of Ethiopia, Nigeria and India, over 40 percent of girls and young women are married by the time they are 15. More than 50 percent are married before 18 in Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali, Nepal, Mozambique and Uganda.

    Interesting, isn’t that?

    Also, at least I know that “scarred by war” was an important clause of the sentence that you’re criticizing, and it certainly applies to Afghanistan.

  5. redlegphi says:

    To be clear, not all of Afghanistan is like this. Ghor is one of the most impoverished and isolated Provinces in the country. The people here tend to be much more conservative and traditional than people from more urban parts of the nation, such as Kabul. Having talked to Afghans from Kabul about this, they consider the practice of buying ones bride to be archaic. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen in Kabul, but it’s not as common there.

  6. Kamal Jain says:

    likin yeh 11 sal ki ladki bacchi ke sath 40 sal ka admi balatkar kiyun karta hain? does that 40 year old man wants child from the 11 year old girl child?

  7. I wrote a long post on the UNICEF Photo of the Year at my blog, explaining my reaction to it, and then taking to task Debbie Schlussel and the other extreme right wingers who have used it as a just another excuse to argue that Muslims are subhuman, and the UN is supports child abuse.

    James,

    Regarding the picture choice. I’m not sticking up for child marriage or criticising UNICEF for highlighting it, but do you think they could have chosen a slightly less racially tinged picture? There must be plenty of pictures like this to choose from. Did they have to go for the one with a really dark and swarthy and bearded and extravagantly turbaned man and a girl so pale she looks white?

    That’s ridiculous. What is “white” anyway, other than a social construct? Many Afghans are from fair skinned Indo-European ethnic groups, and if you saw them walking down the street in jeans and sneakers you wouldn’t think of them as non-white. The photo isn’t “racially-tinged.” The man in the photo is obviously tanned, probably from working outside, and the girl has probably been kept inside for a while prior to being sold off into marriage.

    There is plenty of racism in Afghanistan, however, largely directed against the non-Indo-European looking ethnic groups, and this racism (unlike the “pale is inherently better” idea that drives the market for skin-lighteners in many post-colonial countries) has its roots in Afghanistan itself, not in foreign domination or Western cultural imperialism.

  8. OK, this part of the Spiegel article really pissed me off:

    The man in the image is oblivious of his wrongdoing. He’s only doing what his forefathers did. Sticking to traditions increases the chances of survival. His seed will create a new person and strengthen the clan. He will impregnate this girl without love and without regret, since love is a word from far-off stories and songs, a word from the decadent West, where people have no comprehension of the harshness of life in the desert and of war without end, which is the essence of life in this part of the world.

    It’s fine to condemn the fact that the girl will be raped and used as a means of producing more children in a society where life expectancy is low and life itself very harsh. But who the hell does the writer think he is, claiming Afghans do not love in the same way people from the “decadent West” do? That Afghans lack even the word for love?

    Afghans, like all people, feel love and loss and happiness ad fear and every other emotion. To argue otherwise is to essentially argue that they aren’t as human as “we” are. I worked with Afghan refugees some years ago, and I remember, clearly to this day, the grief of a mother who lost her daughter in a Taliban attack on their village. That mother loved her daughter, and she’ll always miss her, no less than my grandmother will always miss the daughter she lost when a truck turned over on her car during a rainstorm.

  9. Oh says:

    At least I know that suppressed doesn’t mean ‘doesn’t happen’

    Well, given that you also said that you think war and colonialism is a “pretty effective solution,” you certainly give the impression that you think it’s okay if it *does* happen, so long as it’s quiet enough.

    Almost the whole article is devoted to slagging off western cultural relativists who he says don’t see a problem with child marriage. The ‘Easterns’ actually get off much lighter because they’re just obliviously following tradition.

    And that’s part of what this post is objecting to, isn’t it? There are people in the “East” who do fight against this, and there are people in the West who might condemn this kind of thing when it’s brown people doing it but who want the “right” to do things that harm women and children in their own cultural milieu. A fair article would keep those points in mind and wouldn’t be titled with a reference to the photo’s making “the West’s heart ache.”

  10. Bq says:

    James is so spectacularly ignorant and repellant. The Taliban came to power in part because of US support. Does that not count as colonialism?

  11. The Taliban came to power in part because of US support. Does that not count as colonialism?

    In the strict sense, it wasn’t colonialism because we weren’t setting up any kind of permanent presence in Afghanistan at that time. Still terrible, but not colonialism.

    We haven’t learned our lesson, either.

  12. james says:

    James is so spectacularly ignorant and repellant. The Taliban came to power in part because of US support. Does that not count as colonialism?

    No it doesn’t. The Taliban were an anti-colonial movement. They fought in favour of self rule and opposed and defeated the Soviet invasion. They’re one of the reasons I’m a big supporter of colonialism. You can say what you like about the Commies but at least they were in favour of using some seriously repressive measures to get rid of child marriage and drag Afghanistan into the twentieth century. That’s more that you can say about the Taliban. For that matter it’s more than you can say ablout NATO of the people currently in charge, they’ve got no problem sucking up to child molesters if it’ll make their life easier.

  13. Bq says:

    The ISI and the US government helped arm religious fundamentalists as a strategy to counter communism.

    Interference based on power gained from countless colonizations and economic exploitation of third world countries is not neo-colonialism?

    So you’re basically saying that I’m “civilized” now, as an Indian because of the British? Fuck you. Take a postcolonial theory class, you white supremacist.

  14. Bq says:

    So what happened to Abeer Hamza was “civilized”? Third World feminists have done a lot of work pointing out the correlation between militarism and rape. How about killing people with white phosphorous, is that “civilized” as well?

  15. Mold says:

    Her family is poor. They sell her off so that she may eat. Not much of a choice and one we in the West are not likely to have to make.

  16. Bq says:

    Regarding child abuse, rape was rampant at boarding schools for indigenous children in colonialist settler societies like the US, Canada and Australia. It completely disgusts me that there are “feminists” like you who consider the lives of people of color cheap. It would behoove you to read intellectuals like Gayatri Spivak and Chandra Mohanty, but obviously you have no respect for women of color and are unlikely to.

  17. Bq says:

    At the end of the day, anyone who calls themselves a feminists needs to listen to and read the works of women of color/postcolonial feminist theorists and work *with* woc instead of allying with patriarchal, imperialist power interests.

  18. Regardless of the controversy and the various interpretations, I love the photo. I love it because of her eyes. She looks at him with such hate and fear. And then after reading the description, you want to help her. It works for me. I guess it doesn’t work for everyone because they see other things. But for me, the first thing I saw were her eyes.

  19. Ledasmom says:

    But for me, the first thing I saw were her eyes

    Yes – he is looking at the camera, but she is looking at him. It’s a pretty good representation of the inequalities in their positions.

  20. Naadir Jeewa says:

    We in the West prefer our underage girls to be kidnapped and trafficked to the streets of London before being raped rather than going through the whole rigmarole of marriage. That is our cultural fabric.

  21. Erika says:

    The author is right when he says that cultural relativism takes us down a dangerous path; he is right that we must draw lines. But he’s wrong when he presumes that people in the “East” are backwards child-marrying barbarians, while people in the West are enlightened and feminist.

    When I see arguments like this, I almost think that conservatives have a point.

    How many Americans would argue that marrying a child to an elderly man is okay? A few Mormon nutcases on the Utah-Arizona border?

    Americans are by no means morally pure, but there are some things that we take for granted that much of the rest of the world does not. For example, the Pew Center’s report from earlier this year demonstrated that 71 percent of Americans do not want women to return to our “traditional” roles in society. Compare that to many Middle Eastern countries where a majority of the population opposes basic rights for women, meaning that at least some Middle Eastern women oppose their own claim to human rights.

    There’s simply no comparison to how women are viewed and treated in the developed world vs. the developing world.

    “A Mother’s Journey”: The American photographer Renee C. Byer took this picture as part of a series about a single mother with five children and a son suffering from terminal cancer. He died in 2006.

    The United States has one of the worst health care systems in the developed world. People get sick and people die every day because they lack access to adequate health care.

    Huh? What does that have to do with a child who had terminal cancer? Is there any evidence that his death was due to a lack of access to health care? That statement is particularly offensive considering that the very next photo is of a severely disabled child who was never afforded access to the most basic life-saving medication that virtually every American takes for granted. Keep in mind that most of the third world has absolutely no accommodations for the physically disabled. There’s a reason why he’s crawling around with shoes on his hands rather than sitting in a wheelchair.

    We in the West prefer our underage girls to be kidnapped and trafficked to the streets of London before being raped rather than going through the whole rigmarole of marriage.

    Yes, we certainly “prefer” that. It’s certainly not the result of a small number of predators and men who’d rather not know where prostitutes come from/what they suffer. I take it that there are no children forced into sex slavery in the East?

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