Magnum Apologizes For its Past Failings, Promises to Do Better

Photography News

In August of 2020, concerns were raised about images in Magnum’s archives with relation to how they safeguard the identities and lives of vulnerable children. Magnum has published a public apology for its past failures and vows to do better.

Magnum’s lengthy blog first apologizes for its failings in the past and then outlines the ways the organization intends to do better going forward.

We recognize that we made mistakes and we are deeply sorry for these. In making sensitive work openly available on the internet we haven’t shown enough care for the vulnerable people in the images, and in failing to give the right context to images, we have in some instances misrepresented photographers’ work. Not only has this caused offence to members of the public, it may also have had implications for some of the people shown in the images.

The organization’s apology comes after it promised to investigate its entire archive for problematic images by Magnum photojournalist David Alan Harvey (who has since been suspended from Magnum) who was using Magnum’s platform to sell images that depicted young women — possibly teenagers — who were working as prostitutes in Bangkok. The issue being, if those depicted were indeed underage, their existence would amount to images of child exploitation since children cannot legally provide consent to being “sex workers” or “prostitutes,” as these images were labeled.

Below is an example from PetaPixel’s original coverage.

We are determined to learn from this and put better protections in place,” Magnum writes. “Whilst the images of children have been legally cleared by the Internet Watch Foundation, we are working hard to fully contextualise work, add appropriate warning information, and put the right levels of access restrictions in place.

Magnum states that it believes that its failing lies in how images are published without proper context, but stops short of stating the images themselves are problematic.

For its part, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has also announced that Magnum Photos has joined its organization to help in the assessment of a selection of “sensitive” images from the Magnum archive. The IWF’s stated goal is to minimize the availability of online sexual abuse content, specifically of child sexual abuse.

The statement that the IWF has cleared the images in question indicates that the investigation launched last August has so far not yielded underage abuse according to both organizations. However, only a portion of the images in Magnum’s archive has been evaluated.

To date we have given ‘eyes on’ review to 148,000 (out of 893,000) images, and 24,000 (out of 64,000) keywords. 3,559 images have been flagged as sensitive and set aside for further consideration, and 138 keywords have been removed as inappropriate. Material that is set aside will be considered on a case-by-case basis in discussion with the photographer. It may be re-integrated into the archive in a protected way with the appropriate warnings and safeguards, or in some cases removed altogether.

Based on these numbers, only 16% of Magnum’s total photo archive has been evaluated. The agency expects to complete the process by sometime this fall.

Magnum is also addressing how keywords are attached to images, a major point of emphasis in the disputes between Harvey and Magnum.

We will also ensure that Magnum has better oversight in future of the partners who add keywords to our images. We accept full responsibility for this and are actively reviewing the best way to set up a system which ensures work is always accurately and appropriately represented.

The agency is additionally using this opportunity to evaluate its role in race, gender, and identification.

In having these conversations, we realize that other issues need addressing too, including portrayal of race and gender, identification of vulnerable people, and handling of sexually explicit or violent imagery. At the heart of these are fundamental questions about power dynamics and the meaning of truth in photography.

We are engaging with these concerns and critically questioning our work, as many other journalists, artists, and cultural organisations are doing at the moment. We believe it is possible to do this whilst at the same time standing by the right to freedom of expression and the need to continue documenting difficult topics in the world.

Magnum lists several concrete levels of progress in its goal to fully review this process which can be read here.

Since the initial report last year, Magnum has made a series of public statements including promises of additional investigations into allegations of misconduct levied against Harvey as well as publishing a public code of conduct.

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