Ethics and images of suffering bodies in humanitarian medicine

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Type of article: 
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Social Science & Medicine
Date of publication: 
Vol. 98, pp. 278-285

Media 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.

In this article, Philippe Calain seeks to specify and better understand the problem 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, the author observes that media representations of suffering bodies would generally not meet ethical standards commonly applied in medical practice. Secondly, the author tries to identify what overriding humanitarian imperatives could outweigh such reservations.