A Poster Campaign: A Response to MSF 2005

by Dr Paul Bouvier

Thank you for sharing these very interesting reflections on the use of images in this MSF campaign. As is underlined by de Laat in her piece, this campaign in 2005 was a creative attempt to find ways out of traditional campaigns based on images from abroad. This attempt raised, however, other concerns related to the use of individual portraits in humanitarian campaigns. I was at the time the director of the Services for health promotion and protection for children and youth in the canton of Geneva. This is how I have been involved in the management of unanticipated effects of the campaign.

A few weeks before the campaign was launched, the nurse of a primary school was contacted by the mother of a 9 year-old boy. The mother explained that her child had just participated in a picture session for an MSF poster campaign. While the mother was enthusiastic about the campaign, she was concerned that the picture with its accompanying text might have negative effects on her boy. The text of the poster said that the boy had been raped and tortured by an armed group from a Swiss canton fighting another canton. The mother explained, “the word ‘rape’ is very strong”; “torture,” she added, “would have been sufficient”. She was concerned her son’s school friends might be worried, or quibble and make fun of her son. Seeking to pre-empt this risk, she wanted MSF to come in and give an information session to students at the school.

The school nurse met with the boy, who said that he consented to being photographed, and was happy to do the campaign, but didn’t want to be picked on by others when the posters went up on city walls. At this point I met with the nurse and we suggested that, in response to these concerns of the boy and his mother, the teacher might give an information session to the boy’s classroom, that would explain the campaign. This suggestion was not well received however, as it was interpreted as refusal from our public services to talk about humanitarian action at school. Eventually politicians became involved and insisted to the authorities that the student should receive an information about humanitarian action in crises. The school authorities, on their end, were worried that the 9 year old might be harmed by having his image exposed in relation with sexual violence.

It was ultimately agreed that a communication agent from MSF, together with the classroom teachers and the school nurse, would provide information sessions about the humanitarian work of MSF and the poster campaign.

These sessions took place a few days later, in all classes, starting with the class of the boy. The teacher introduced the session, explaining the role of MSF, the contexts in which this NGO works and its action. The teacher explained that MSF was doing a publicity campaign, and that their classmate had agreed to lend his picture for this campaign. The teacher insisted that what was written on the poster did not actually occur to their classmate. The communication officer from MSF elaborated on the theme of humanitarian action. He added explanations about rape and torture, and eventually added that such things do not occur in Switzerland.

In most classes, the information sessions were well received. A girl asked how she also might have her picture included in the poster campaign. However, the explanations of rape and armed conflicts generated confusion and concern amongst the pupils. Some asked what really happened to their friend; others asked why there was a war between cantons in this country.

The father of a 9-year-old girl complained that rape and sexual violence were discussed at the school without parents being informed or asked for consent. The teacher responded that this information was actually a complement to the session on sexual education and prevention of abuse, in which the pupils had already participated earlier.

In conclusion, children wanted to understand what happened to their comrade; many did not seem to understand that such a story was invented just for the purpose of a communication campaign. On their side, the schoolboy and his mother experienced anxiety and fear for negative consequences, when they suddenly realized the powerful impact of an image, and the negative stigma that could be attached to it. In this respect this campaign did not succeed in avoiding problems of stigma related to miserabilistic approaches of communication in humanitarian action.

Paul Bouvier (pbouvier@icrc.org) is a paediatric and public health physician, he is also the senior medical advisor for the International Committee for the Red Cross, Geneva, Switzerland.

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