Is an Award-Winning Photo of a Haitian Immigrant Bathing in Brazil Unethical?

The surge in arrivals of migrants to São Paulo overwhelmed reception centers. Credit: Laura Daudén/ Conectas.Org/Fotos Públicas (29/04/2014). CC BY-NC 2.0

The surge in arrivals of migrants to São Paulo overwhelmed reception centers. Credit: Laura Daudén/ Conectas.Org/Fotos Públicas (29/04/2014). CC BY-NC 2.0

The Vladimir Herzog Award is considered one of the highest recognitions of human rights in Brazilian journalism. Carried out with support from the UN, its name is in reference to the journalist who was killed by the Brazilian dictatorship in 1975. But this year, one of the selections generated controversy and raised questions about the social responsibility of journalistic activities.

The work awarded in the photography category was an image captured by photographer Ronny Santos of a Haitian man taking an improvised bath on the premises of Missão Paz (Peace Mission), an organization of the Catholic church in São Paulo, in May 2015. Published in the newspapers Agora and Folha de S. Paulo, two of the largest in Brazil, the photograph stirred up indignation from immigrants and organizations involved in migratory issues.


The image of a Haitian man was taken in May in the bathroom of Missão Paz, a place that suffered overcrowding of migrants at that time. In October, the photograph received the Vladimir Herzog Award in Amnesty and Human Rights. Image: ARFOC-SP/Divulgação. Widely distributed online.

Soon after the photograph was published, the Missão Paz, led by the Italian priest Paolo Parise, released a letter condemning what he considered “sensationalist journalism”:

Algumas reportagens se aproveitam dessa situação para invadir a privacidade alheia, expondo os migrantes sem sua autorização de forma que as imagens dessas pessoas acabam se tornando um produto a ser comercializado de maneira totalmente desumana. O objetivo da mídia em meio a essas crises é pressionar o Estado para tomar uma atitude, e não constranger aqueles que mais precisam de assistência.

Some reports take advantage of the situation to invade the privacy of others, exposing migrants without their permission in a manner in which the images of these people end up becoming a product to be commercialized in a completely inhumane way. The objective of the media in the middle of these crises is to pressure the state to take a stand, not to embarrass those who need help the most.

The photo was taken in a specific context: at the time, migrants from diverse nationalities – Haitians, for the most part – were streaming into Brazil through the state of Acre, on the border with Peru and Bolivia. Lacking adequate infrastructure and with little assistance from the federal government, the Acre government sent the migrants on buses to other states, among them São Paulo.

Civil society groups that aid migrant populations in São Paulo struggled to meet the demand. The Missão Paz even needed to shelter migrants on mattresses in an auditorium due to lack of space.

With the announcement of the image among the winners of the Vladimir Herzog Award for Amnesty and Human Rights this year, the Missão Paz and the Haitian Organization of São Paulo asked the award's organizing committee to reconsider their choice.

In an open letter sent to the committee, the Haitian Organization argued:

Comentamos aos jornalistas e fotógrafos ‘se gostariam que alguém entrasse em sua casa e fizesse fotos enquanto tomavam banho’. Conversamos com os haitianos que estavam no salão da igreja quando o fotógrafo bateu as fotos. Ele não pediu autorização. Muito mal educado, ele entrou no banheiro e fez as fotos. O haitiano foi embora de São Paulo com muita vergonha. Estamos tristes como organização e como haitianos.

We asked the journalist and photographers ‘if they would like for someone to enter their home and take photos while they were taking a bath.’ We spoke with the Haitians who were in the church hall when the photographer snapped the photos. He did not ask for permission. Being very rude, he went into the restroom and took the photos. The Haitian man ended up leaving São Paulo very embarrassed. We are saddened as an organization and as Haitians.

In the same document, the Haitian Organization claims that not a single newspaper or television station gave any attention to the outrage from the community.

Even so, the award's organizing committee opted to maintain its selection. In an interview for the blog MigraMundo, the committee justified its decision:

Entendemos que as informações sobre as instalações de emergência, e alegações sobre o constrangimento do fotografado e da comunidade haitiana apontados pelo Padre não retiram a importância da fotografia em termos de denúncia pública de um problema social. Concluímos que houve esforço na tentativa de preservar a imagem do fotografado, e neste caso, os danos à sua imagem e dos haitianos aludidos pelo Padre Paolo seriam menores do que aqueles causados pela não valorização ou supressão de informação sobre uma situação de grande relevância nacional e global, que é a falta de condições de instituições estatais e sociais para recepcionar os imigrantes.

We understand that the information about the emergency facilities, as well as the claims about the embarrassment of the subject and of the Haitian community pointed out by the priest, don't diminish the importance of the photo in terms of public criticism of a social problem. We concluded that there was effort to attempt to protect the image of the individual photographed, and in this case, the harm to his image and to the Haitians alluded to by Padre Paolo would be less than the harm caused by not valuing or by suppressing information about a situation of great national and global relevance, that being the inadequate conditions in state and social institutions set up to receive immigrants.

Also in an interview with MigraMundo, the photographer behind the image, Ronny Santos, argued that he had the permission of the Haitian man photographed to take the pictures:

“Em nenhum momento o personagem faz menção de proibir as fotografias ou usar as mãos ou os braços para indicar que não quer ser fotografado. Simplesmente continua tomando seu banho sabendo que as fotografias estavam sendo tiradas. Depois disso, saí e o haitiano continuou se lavando”.

At no time did the person make mention of forbidding photographs or use his hands or arms to indicate that he did not want to be photographed. He simply continued taking a bath, knowing that the photos were being taken. After that, I left and the Haitian man continued bathing.

Santos added that even though he was shocked by the scene, it was his duty to photograph it.

“Entendo a posição das entidades e entendo as críticas, mas o desrespeito estava acontecendo e eu, profissionalmente, tive que fotografar”.

I understand the position of the organizations and I understand the criticism, but the disrespect was happening and I, professionally, had to photograph.

But the arguments of the photographer and the commission did not convince the Missão Paz and others involved in the reception and orientation of migrants. In addition to a new memorandum of rejection, the organization launched a public petition to gain support and protest the selection of the photo:

“Tal premiação está abrindo um perigoso precedente de que mais importa uma foto em si do que os direitos humanos do fotografado. Nesse sentido, é possível destacar diversos outros trabalhos fotográficos que contribuem para a função social da mídia de informar e sensibilizar a população e o governo para a causa das imigrações, sem denegrir e violar direitos humanos”.

Awarding such an image opens a dangerous precedent in which the photo itself is more important than the human rights of the person photographed. In that sense, it's possible to highlight several other photographic works that contribute to the media's social function of informing and raising awareness among the population and government authorities of the cause of immigration, without denigrating or violating human rights.

Bolivian journalist Antonio Andrade, in charge of the web portals Bolívia Cultural and Planeta América Latina, also criticized the publication of the photo:

“Nossas dores não podem ser utilizadas como ferramenta de humilhação ou desvalorização do ser humano! O contexto deve ser mais profundo e menos banal! Como comunicador, acredito que a ética do profissional estará sempre à frente do comunicador, que deve ter seus valores focados na humanização da informação e nunca na desmoralização da mesma”.

Our pain can not be used as a tool for humiliating or devaluing human beings! The context must be more profound and less banal! As a media person, I believe that professional ethics are always in play with the journalist, who must have his or her values focused on the humanization of information and never on demoralization.

Rodrigo Borges Delfim is editor of the blog MigraMundo, mentioned in the article.


  • Jason

    “The objective of the media in the middle of these crises is to pressure the state to take a stand, not to embarrass those who need help the most.”

    The objective of the media is to create awareness and tools for a community to better understand itself so the community can act the way it deems necessary.

    The indignation is, I believe, misdirected and a missed opportunity for the Missão Paz to channel those angry feelings into their own pressure on the state.

  • […] Ethical Bathing Photo […]

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