Photographing armed conflict, and photographing the children dragged into it can have a deep public impact.

Poignant images of the Syrian boy pictured in the wake of an Aleppo explosion or that of the dead Syrian toddler carried by rescue workers on a beach in Greece, are powerful images and undoubtedly resonate with international audiences.

However, documenting such moments, designed to humanise and put a face to a conflict or tragic event, forgoes the many ethical considerations in place of editorial aims and may put the child at risk of more harm, stigma or violent retaliations.

Using identifiable images of children formerly or currently associated with armed forces and armed groups is something Child Soldiers International strongly refuses to do.

Our stance is in line with UNICEF’s guidelines on reporting on children’s issues and the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, which both stress that the identities of children currently or formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups should never be revealed whenever this may put them at risk. 

As stated in the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, it is our responsibility to help protect these children, and at Child Soldiers International we believe publishing their portraits has a negative impact and fails to benefit those we are focused on supporting.

The use of sensational and simplistic images portraying children as either violent – with weapons – or simply as victims is an all too common tactic used by media and charities alike.

These images, of a school-aged boy holding an AK-47 or a young girl caring for a baby in a faraway country, actually have the opposite effect.

Many openly publish such photographs – images of children recruited by ISIS featured in The Sun newspaper and other outlets are recent examples.

Instead of offering an individual perspective on a crisis, they risk generalising, conveying an incomplete picture and reducing acutely human scenes to stereotypes.

As famed Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina wrote in his celebrated satirical essay How To Write About Africa “[T]reat Africa as if it were one country…. the continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs… but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions … evocative and unparticular [sic].”

The value of a possible spike in donations or wider readership by publishing an evocative image of a 12-year-old boy in eastern Congo carrying a weapon is, we believe, outweighed by ethical concerns.

Alongside the risks that photographing children formerly or currently associated with armed forces and armed groups could place on the individuals and their communities, there is a need to respect the individual child and not exploit their suffering for greater marketing or page views.

We have a responsibility to not only report when children’s rights are being violated but to uphold their right to privacy, dignity and protection. 

Child soldiers returning to their families and communities often face great challenges reintegrating into civilian life, and are often scarred by traumatic experiences.

Instead we prefer to use more general imagery and illustrations to support our work.

It is a stance shared by many groups, including the Child Rights International Network (CRIN).

The use of illustrations to highlight important human rights issues has been replicated by publications like the Guardian, BBC Africa and Huffington Post while non-profit PositiveNegatives has been set-up specifically to design animations and illustrations to tell sensitive stories.

Illustration depicting life of girl soldiers in DR Congo.

For us, this approach is equally as powerful while maintaining the anonymity of the children and adolescents we speak with.

Creating awareness and bringing about legal change to address the plight of children involved in armed conflict is our central aim and this can be achieved without further exploiting those involved or putting their safety at risk.

We hope more organisations and media outlets will focus on the issue and change their own policies on using identifiable images of children.

*Image credit: Mungulirwa Rodriguez