It emerged on Thursday that Magnum Photos may have been selling photographs of child sexual abuse for more than 30 years. Until it can answer some critical questions about its past and how it runs its business, its reputation is under threat.
Discovered in Magnum’s archive a few days ago was a series of photographs by David Alan Harvey from his time spent with sex workers in Bangkok in 1989. Several of the photographs were sexually explicit, appeared to feature child nudity and were tagged with keywords “Teenage girl - 13 to 18 years.” Magnum has since stated that it understands that these images are “inappropriate” and has removed them from its website. When asked if it acknowledged that these sexually explicit photographs of children constituted child sexual abuse, it declined to comment.
As of yesterday, the Magnum Photos website returned more than 100 results when using the search term “girl prostitute.” Many of these images featured identifiable subjects, and many of them are clearly children. Some are tagged “Girl - 3 to 13 years.”
UNICEF, the United Nations agency tasked with humanitarian aid for children around the world, has specific guidelines for documenting children. “Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child” who is identified as a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation, it states. It also asks that journalists should “avoid categorizations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals.” Raising awareness is not justification: “Protect the best interests of each child over any other consideration, including advocacy for children’s issues and the promotion of child rights.”
Despite these clear guidelines, it's not unusual for photo agencies to feature images tagged as “child prostitute,” with subjects — obviously children — clearly identifiable, as proven by the discoveries made on the Getty Images website yesterday.
The photographs produced by Harvey raise serious questions not only regarding the portrayal of children being sexually exploited, but how the process of creating these images could constitute acts of child sexual abuse. Making sexually explicit photographs of children is unequivocally child abuse; at present, Magnum considers these images as merely “inappropriate.”
U.K. law is clear: the act of creating a sexually explicit image of a child constitutes sexual abuse. Journalistic intention is not considered a defense, regardless of when an image is created. Distribution of that image is illegal.
This may be an indication of a broader cultural problem regarding prostitution at Magnum. In 2014, Martin Parr, then president of the agency, wrote the foreword for a photobook by Spanish photographer Txema Salvans. For eight years, Salvans photographed sex workers waiting on the side of Catalan roads, covertly and without the women’s permission, having been informed that they did not want to be photographed. Many of the women are identifiable. In his foreword, Parr refers repeatedly to the sex workers (“prostitutes” in his words — a term he last week acknowledged was inappropriate) as “models.” If the subjects of photographs can be considered as “models” — a term that implies consent — when they have been secretly photographed against their expressed wishes and potentially in breach of Spanish law, there is the suggestion of a lack of empathy and respect that should raise grave concerns.
Magnum Photos’ history with images of child sexual abuse does not reflect positively on the agency. In 2017, in partnership with LensCulture, it used a photograph of a child being raped to promote a competition. As NPR noted when reporting this story, “The girl is on her back, looking up at the camera, with a naked man on top of her. Her face is in full view. Her identity is not concealed.” The caption of the image stated that the girl in the photograph was 16.
Following an outcry over the use of this photograph, Robert Godden, Director of Campaigns and Communications of advocacy group Rights Exposure, contacted various senior figures in the photo industry. Among them was Fiona Rogers, Global Business Development Manager for Magnum Photos. In response, she wrote the following:
The protection of vulnerable and abused children is of paramount importance to Magnum Photos. As a collective, the letter has been distributed to Magnum Photographers for their individual consideration and the agency is taking the time to consider how these recommendations guide the production of work, and apply to our archive, our new publishing initiatives, as well as how we engage with non-Magnum photographer work through our education activities and competitions. Magnum staff and photographers will continue to discuss these topics over the coming weeks and months, examining each part of the business in turn, to ensure we shine a light on concerned areas.
Speaking to the British Journal of Photography in 2018, then-president David Kogan said, “Magnum has been conscious of the issues [in photojournalism] for some time,” adding, “We have a much stronger sense of action, of change.”
If three years later, Magnum has photographs, not just of identifiable children working as sex slaves but of potential child sexual abuse, questions must be asked about what action was taken. Magnum appears to have offered the images taken by Harvey for licensing for more than 30 years, and the inaction suggests either that the agency is either unwilling or unable to manage its own archive.
For this reason, Magnum Photos needs to provide a response as a matter of urgency. Until it demonstrates an adequate response and offers answers to some crucial questions, its function as a photographic agency should be regarded as untenable. Questions include:
- Why was Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey taking sexually explicit images of what appear to be children in Thailand in 1989?
- Does Magnum acknowledge that creating a sexually explicit image of a child constitutes an act of child sexual abuse?
- Why does Harvey have a photograph of what appears to be a naked child approaching him where he is sitting or lying?
- Why did Harvey think it appropriate to submit this image to Magnum’s archive?
- Why did Magnum think it appropriate to include Harvey’s images in its archive?
- Has Harvey been suspended from Magnum?
- Will Harvey be subject to an investigation?
- Will Magnum report Harvey’s images to the police?
- Will Magnum ensure that images of child sexual abuse in its archive are destroyed?
- Will Magnum accept an investigation of its archive with the oversight of a child protection officer?
- Why did Magnum fail to review its archive properly following an outcry in 2017 over its use of an image of child rape to promote a competition?
- Is Magnum finally willing to remove hundreds of images of child sex slaves from its archive?
Attempts have been made to contact Magnum’s New York and London offices. The only response has been via Magnum’s PR agency, referring inquiries to its previous statement. When asked if it was willing to share its members' code of conduct, Magnum declined.
If you have information regarding Magnum's practices or that of any of its photographers, please get in touch. All correspondence will be treated with absolute confidence.