AffiliationUnité de Recherche sur les Enjeux et Pratiques Humanitaires (UREPH), Médecins Sans Frontières - Switzerland, Rue de Lausanne 78, CH-1211 Genève 21, Switzerland. Electronic address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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JournalSocial Science & Medicine
AbstractMedia representations of suffering bodies from medical humanitarian organisations raise ethical questions, which deserve critical attention for at least three reasons. Firstly, there is a normative vacuum at the intersection of medical ethics, humanitarian ethics and the ethics of photojournalism. Secondly, the perpetuation of stereotypes of illness, famine or disasters, and their political derivations are a source of moral criticism, to which humanitarian medicine is not immune. Thirdly, accidental encounters between members of the health professions and members of the press in the humanitarian arena can result in misunderstandings and moral tension. From an ethics perspective the problem can be specified and better understood through two successive stages of reasoning. Firstly, by applying criteria of medical ethics to the concrete example of an advertising poster from a medical humanitarian organisation, I observe that media representations of suffering bodies would generally not meet ethical standards commonly applied in medical practice. Secondly, I try to identify what overriding humanitarian imperatives could outweigh such reservations. The possibility of action and the expression of moral outrage are two relevant humanitarian values which can further be spelt out through a semantic analysis of 'témoignage' (testimony). While the exact balance between the opposing sets of considerations (medical ethics and humanitarian perspectives) is difficult to appraise, awareness of all values at stake is an important initial standpoint for ethical deliberations of media representations of suffering bodies. Future pragmatic approaches to the issue should include: exploring ethical values endorsed by photojournalism, questioning current social norms about the display of suffering, collecting empirical data from past or potential victims of disasters in diverse cultural settings, and developing new canons with more creative or less problematic representations of suffering bodies than the currently accepted stereotypes.