The use of a picture of a healthy mother and child in an HIV/AIDS campaign triggered a reaction that undid much of the good work the campaign was trying to achieve. The case should act as a wake up call for those working in sensitive areas where stigma and discrimination are still very strong, says R Induja
A smiling mother, with kumkum and chandan adorning her forehead poses for a photograph holding her baby. The traditional round black marks for drishti (to ward off the evil eye) are clearly visible on the baby’s cheek and forehead as are the sacred threads on her wrist.
The evil eye however, was cast and irrevocably so in the lives of this mother and child. The picture was taken by a French photographer who was attempting to capture various images of India. From temples to traditional women, animals on streets to laughing children – his pictures have covered a wide spectrum of Indian images. Many of them are arresting pictures, but all of them appear to be candid, that is, none of them were actually “modelled” for the photographer.
The photograph of the mother and child had captured the essence of a typical traditional South Indian woman with her child. It was a good picture, meant to convey an image of healthy mothers and children. The hitch here was that the picture was used in a campaign with reference to AIDS.
The Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society launched a campaign to inform the public about the Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT) programme, which is part of its activities. An agency that submitted creative material for the campaign included this picture in its submission. While placing “reference” pictures is usual at the time of suggesting creative ideas, what complicated things was that the picture was picked up and used on hoardings as part of the campaign asking mothers to get to know about the PPTCT programme for the sake of a healthy child like the one in the picture.
After a barrage of questions on whether she was HIV-positive and on the status of her child, the distraught lady who lived in a conservative neighbourhood in Chennai, moved house. She also decided to sue the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (TANSACS) for wrongful use of her picture.
TANSACS has countered in court that the agency that supplied the picture had taken it from a website, and that once the picture was available online the petitioner had no right to complain. The advertising agency for its part has made it clear that it only submitted a picture for reference and had not implemented the campaign. They had no idea how their creative had found its way into a campaign they were no part of. The subject of the photograph says she only posed for a photographer during a pulse polio drive and had no idea it was for publication, definitely not in connection with HIV prevention.
The Tamil Nadu Health Department, TANSACS, and the advertising agency in the campaign have all been issued notices. The judge has taken a stern view of this lapse in using the photograph and has not accepted the plea of TANSACS and the state health department that they had no idea about the picture, and that it was the advertising agency that was responsible. The judge has asked the respondents to provide a suitable reply and the case is pending in the Madras High Court.
Issues related to HIV/AIDS and the media have always been tricky. Over time, various guidelines have been formulated as development agencies, media organisations and advertising companies have all come to realise that this is not like any other issue but comes with a barrage of sensitivities and social stigma.
The Advertising Standards Council of India declares as its fundamental principle, the need “to ensure the truthfulness and honesty of representations and claims made by advertisements and to safeguard against misleading advertisements.”
The Press Council specifies the importance of being objective, factual and sensitive. There is also a prescribed consent form to obtain the written consent of the person who is being interviewed or whose photograph is being used in any material related to HIV/AIDS. The consent form also states explicitly that using the picture may have its potential fallout with regard to stigma or discrimination from family and society. It is recommended that all materials for publication in relation to HIV, definitely those meant for the mass media, obtain the consent of those who are appearing in the photographs/videos/interviews.
While in most cases the identity of those who are HIV-positive are masked, in recent times, positive networks have focused on facing the cameras boldly, providing a happy and healthy image in order to reduce the stigma arising from HIV/AIDS. However, in all these cases, the positive networks have facilitated and supported this process as an effort to increase the acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS.
In the case of the controversial mother-daughter picture, the subjects posed innocently for the camera. Their consent was not taken for the photograph, and the photographer who posted these pictures on a website had no idea about how it was used. For many weeks after the case had been publicised in the media, the photograph was still available online on the same website.
The slip-up in procedure in not getting the consent of the subject of the photograph to use the photograph has proved very embarrassing to all concerned. Tamil Nadu, which otherwise has an enviable track record of health programmes, and especially with regard to reversing the HIV epidemic, is having to introspect on issues of sensitivity.
This controversy is not a one-off, but a wake-up call for all those whose work is related to HIV, and marginalised communities that carry sensitive and important messages. In an age where we are still battling stigma and discrimination and the need to convey greater acceptance for people with the disease, following simple procedures is essential.
(R Induja is a Chennai-based communication professional who also consults with educational institutions and corporate organisations on media-related activities)
InfoChange News & Features, October 2009