Comment on representation of slavery on the BBC news website

by Craig Evans

I was struck by this photograph used to represent a story about slavery on the BBC news website this morning. I thought it was worth commenting on.

What struck me was how at odds the picture seemed to be with the story. As might be expected, my brain processed the visual image before I had time to read the title, and the schema activated was that of a woman reflecting on a sensual experience, as might appear in a glossy magazine advert for chocolate.

Of course, this was before I noticed the bruising and the scars, which are less prominent than the high cheekbones, full lips and well-groomed eyebrows.

After reading the headline ‘slavery levels in UK “higher than thought”’, I found myself returning to the photograph and wondering about the editor’s choice.

Now, I am aware that my own subjective mental representations evoked by this picture may be very different to other people’s. It is not without a certain amount of risk that I say a picture intended to represent slavery makes me think of chocolate. However, I would argue that the photograph is more representative of chocolate (before you notice the bruises) than it is of slavery.

The woman in this photograph looks like a healthy model. The people who have experienced slavery and lived to tell the tale do not generally look like this. Slavery entails a great deal of physical and emotional abuse, and this abuse is often reflected in the appearance of those who have suffered. That is not to say that somebody who looks like the woman in the picture cannot be a slave, but I personally don’t think that her facial expression, posture and general physical appearance are representative of the pain and suffering caused by slavery.

If you accept my interpretation of the photograph (which I’m sure many may well not), it does then raise the question: why was this stock image chosen instead of a range of possible alternatives?

Immediately, my thoughts are that it must be because the editor felt that an image representing modern slavery needs to be symbolic. To individualise the person who appears in the photograph, as would be the case with a photograph of actual freed slaves, would suggest that the specific individuals are at the centre of the story. However, I don’t think this image clearly communicates the symbolic meaning intended.

Avoiding individualisation is also important in the case of slavery where victims are anonymous. Slavery takes away people’s social identity, cuts them off from the world, and denies them a voice. In fact, the enforced anonymity of slavery is a central idea of the news story which is about the difficulty of knowing the true numbers of people in slavery. Given this, perhaps a more appropriate image would have been one that somehow conveyed this idea, such as by blurring out the face of the model or by representing a situation where slavery may be taking place.

Another inference that I take from this photograph of a model used to represent slavery is that it may be intended to help glamorise the issue. In the age of the internet, where the marketisation of public information discourse has included a proliferation of aspirational imagery, could it be that an attractive model is what it takes to get people to engage with a hideous social problem such as slavery?

I hope not.

Please convince me that I’m wrong in the comments below.

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