The picture you couldn’t bear to look at.


Something really interesting happened behind the scenes here at Mamamia yesterday that we thought you might like to hear about – and help us understand.

Late in the afternoon, a distressing story broke about a Sydney sheik who had been arrested along with a retired nurse for the female genital mutilation of two little girls aged 6 and 7. The girls’ parents were also arrested.

We knew it was something we wanted to post about and – as we usually do – we immediately began preparing the post. This meant looking for an image to accompany the story. This image would appear on the front of the site next to the headline, on Facebook and inside the post itself.

There’s an art to choosing the right image to illustrate the story you are trying to tell. The Internet is a visual medium and the idea is to compliment the words and help tell the story. You don’t always have the option (or the desire) to use images of the actual people or events mentioned in a post – for a variety of reasons.

These might include wanting to protect the privacy of those involved or simply not having access to those photos. In that case, as with other forms of media, we use ‘stock’ shots, licensed images taken by professional photographers and posed by models.

Sometimes, this process is easy and the best image is obvious.

Other times, it’s more difficult and so it was with this story. As you can imagine.

Doing a Google search for ‘female genital mutilation’ was not an option. Well, technically it was but we weren’t going to find any images suitable for publication that way.

So we went to the image library we use for ‘stock’ photos and did a safe search there under a variety of terms including circumcision and child crying.

The main image we chose was this one, of a little girl crying.


Obviously this little girl had not just been a victim of female genital mutilation – and we made that clear – pointing out that it was an illustrative stock image. But we still felt it illustrated the story accurately.

From almost the second we published the post, the backlash was fierce. Commenters here and on Facebook were distressed by the image and begged us to change it.

Now, there are hundreds of thousands of women who read Mamamia and we aren’t holding out for universal popularity when it comes to our image choice. On this occasion though, we felt that people’s distress was really genuine and debate over the photo had the potential to take away from the truly important thing – the story of what happened to these little girls.

Obviously that was never our intention.

After some intense internal discussion in the office, we chose to remove it and replaced the image with this photo of a baby lying on a bed, crying:


Still, people reacted angrily. Perhaps not so violently but still – many readers were upset by the photograph.

So we changed it a final time – to an Amnesty International image of a flower being sewn up (which you can see here on the original post).

But we were left feeling a bit confused about the voracity of the response.

Yes, the reality of female genital mutilation is horrific and disturbing and appalling. But should we sanitise that with a de-personalised shot of a flower, which we ended up with? It is a shocking story and yes, the image disarms you a little and makes you uncomfortable – but so does what is described in the writing.

We’re not disagreeing with those who asked us to take it down, we’re just interested to better understand the reaction.

How would you have illustrated the story?

nailed it

More articles