Meeri Koutaniemi is a Finnish photographer who has received various awards for her work in the last couple of years. During the first months of 2014, one set of her pictures stirred an interesting controversy. The photos on female genital mutilation were published in the biggest newspaper of Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, on January 5, 2014. They have also been seen through various other media, including Time.
The Programme Director at Unicef Finland, Inka Hetemäki, soon criticized the publication of these pictures. “What if it was about our own children”, she asked publicly, paying also attention to the problematic nature of consent for the pictures received from the mutilated girls. A complaint about the article that contained the pictures was also filed for the Council for Mass Media in Finland. The council is a self-regulating body that interprets “good professional practice” and does not exercise legal jurisdiction.
Especially within Finnish social media, but also elsewhere, there was considerable debate around the pictures. It was good to see that also women with Somali background living in Finland contributed to the debates. One example was this public letter arguing that even if Koutaniemi’s pictures may have disturbed many, it is important to talk about their theme as it concerns also many people living in Finland.
I used and reproduced some of the debate in my global democracy class during March and April 2014 at the University of Helsinki, also with wonderful interventions by Elina Oinas and Päivi Mattila. I found it an interesting case on some of the questions that for example postcolonial theorists deal with. For the limited purposes of this short text, postcoloniality can be understood as an academic field that analyzes legacies of colonialism and imperialism, especially but not only as regards ideologies and discourses.
There were many interesting issues involved in the Koutaniemi debate, such the problems in reproducing the idea that Africa is “dark” continent with negative features. The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar has highlighted this question with his installation based on covers of Time magazine. I agree that the image of Africa in Finnish (and most other) media is too based on “sensational negative publicity”, as was today stated in a public debate on my Facebook wall by the director of the Nordic Africa Institute Iina Soiri. Nevertheless, I do not think it follows that Koutaniemi’s pictures should not have been published. We need more diversity in reporting on Africa, but this does not mean we should be silent on problems.
Another important dimension of the debate dealt with the relations of power between feminists representing positions that can be considered white/European or black/African. I hope to write more about this and other aspects of the debate elsewhere, so let me now focus briefly on one of the reasons why I found it fascinating: the question of consent.
Some contributions to the Koutaniemi debate seemed to deny the possibility that the Kenyan girls or their parents or the village as a community could ever give a legitimate consent to the publication of these kinds of pictures in a Finnish newspaper. Thus, even if Koutaniemi did receive consent from the girls, their parents and the community for the pictures, the consent should not be considered valid because they could never understand the context in which the pictures would be published. The reasoning that seemed to deny the possibility of consent, I felt, ran the risk of reinforcing the idea that people from the global south are child-like and cannot properly make decisions about their own lives.
The world certainly is so complicated that people living in the village where Koutaniemi took her pictures can never completely understand the context in which things happen in a distant place like Finland. This, however, applies to just about anyone in the world. The fact that the world is complicated and our possibilities to understand it are limited does not mean that we should not have the right to participate in decisions that concern us.
In the case of Koutaniemi’s pictures, there were no sufficiently convincing reasons to deny the possibility that the girls and their parents could legitimately consent to the publication of the pictures. Denying that possibility would contribute to an infantilization of people from the poor countries of the South. There could of course be other reasons to criticize the publication of the pictures, but in this short text I do not intent to deal with all of them.
The Council for Mass Media in Finland has today ruled in favor of Koutaniemi and Helsingin Sanomat. My first reaction is that the council’s decision seems to be fair. Even if the pictures raise complicated questions, the ruling stated they did not break the professional rules of journalism. This in itself, of course, does not yet answer all the ideological and political questions about these particular pictures and about the more general issue of how poor people from the global south should be represented in media.
Already the same day the council’s ruling was published, Unicef Finland strongly criticized it. One of the key claims of Unicef was that a story like this, showing the face of the victims, would never be accepted if it was about Finnish children. Even if the council’s ruling is not totally clear on this issue, it probably assumed that it would be difficult to compare the procedure of mutilation pictured by Koutaniemi to violence against girls in Finland.
The ruling cites, without taking an explicit stand, the position of Helsingin Sanomat that established a clear difference in this comparison. According to the newspaper, even if someone might recognize the girls in Kenia, this would not be harmful “because in the Maasai culture circumcision improves the social status of girls”. Thus, says the editor-in-chief of the paper, Kaius Niemi, they “cannot be compared to victims of rape”, for whom publicity might cause negative consequences in their community. The debate on this question is likely to continue.
Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki
-The part of the text referring to the identity of the person that presented the complaint to the Council for Mass Media in Finland was modified on 21 May 2014.