Well-known Swiss pediatrician Dr Beat Richner said Tuesday he stands by his decision to turn down more than $100,000 in charity money offered from the sale of a nude photograph of France’s first lady, Carla Bruni.
Richner said the photo depicting a topless Bruni, which was taken in 1993 when she was a model in her native Italy, constituted an “exploitation of nudity,” and offering the proceeds of its sale to his hospitals was an affront to the Cambodian people.
“Exploiting the nudity of [the French president’s] wife to be able to give a little money to our hospital would be shocking and understood as an insult,” Richner said by telephone.
“We are working here in Cambodia. We are not working in Hollywood or in Europe. In Hollywood and in Europe, the nudity of the wife is seen in a different way…. Here, it is seen as an abuse,” he said.
The photograph of Bruni, who married French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this year, was taken by Swiss photographer Michel Comte as part of a fashion shoot for the Italian Vogue magazine.
According to media reports, Comte had persuaded the photograph’s owner, German collector Gert Elfering, to auction the image at Christie’s in New York and donate the proceeds to charity.
Richner said Comte contacted him more than two weeks ago to tell him of his idea and how a Swiss millionaire had agreed to buy the photo of Bruni for $180,000 on the condition that the money be donated to the five Kantha Bopha hospitals in Cambodia.
“I refused out of respect for the French government and the Cambodian government. I refused out of respect for our institution, and for all the poor mothers in our hospital with their sick children,” he said.
According to news reports, the Bruni photograph was ultimately sold at Christie’s auction house to a Chinese businessman who bid $90,000.
Richner, whose hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap treated the vast majority of Cambodia’s dengue fever patients during last year’s epidemic, said he did not regret his decision to reject the money despite the fact that the hospitals are in perpetual need of funds for their free-of-charge treatment.
Looking ahead to the likely wave of dengue fever cases in the coming rainy season, Richner said his five hospitals will likely need $15 million in additional funds for 2008.
“Of course, we need the money. Every day we use $50,000,” he said, but added: “I do not regret my decision.”
“In the long term, I don’t want any connection or any complicity with this picture being sold. I don’t want Kantha Bopha in any way connected with this picture,” he said.
Richner also accused Comte of unfairly taking advantage of Bruni and of trying to make a name for himself as a do-gooder.
“You exploit the nudity of this girl who is now the wife of the president of France to make money. It is even an abuse of charity,” he said.
“I told [the international community] about the 24,000 dengue cases last year and no one was interested. As soon as there is a nude photograph, all the newspapers are interested,” Richner said, adding that he would like to invite Bruni to see his work in Cambodia.
“I would be very pleased if she would arrive to see our hospitals,” he said.