Photographer Marco Vernaschi has gotten himself into quicksand, and taken the otherwise respectable Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting with him. And all I can think about are the forces, commercial and personal, that compel individuals to transgress boundaries of common decency, and institutions that celebrate these by publishing them.
Marco Vernaschi recently published a piece on the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s Untold Stories site about child sacrifice rituals in Uganda. When I first saw the piece I was left unmoved and frankly uninterested. The writing itself was uninteresting, and the photography – black and white pictures stylized, manipulated and otherwise manufactured to suggest ‘menace’, ‘evil darkness’, and ‘nightmares’, seemed only to be the latest in a long heritage of photographers trawling Africa for their piece of the continent’s apparently rich buffet table of the ‘demonic’, ‘diabolical’, ‘devilish’, ‘maniacal’ and otherwise deranged and deviant.
What in fact did surprise me about the work was that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting was supporting and funding it. The work, and the photographer, just seemed a bit too over-the-top, too sensationalist and titillating and hence incongruent with so much of the rest of what the Pulitzer Center typically sponsored and supported. But I just dismissed my response as uninformed and moved on.
Full Disclosure: I, along with writer Elliott Woods, were recipient of a Pulitzer Center grant for our work in Gaza in early 2009.
But there were other matters, and perhaps had I paid closer attention I too would have noticed them. But the ever vigilant Benjamin Chesterton of adevelopingstory.org certainly did. In a post titled Pulitzer Center Crisis in Ethics, Benjamin raised some very specific and clear questions of the ethics of Mr. Vernaschi’s work, and why the Pulitzer Center had chosen to overlook these significant violations of ethics, in particular the rights of the child.
Very simply; to get ‘the meat’ of the story, the photographer Mr. Vernaschi asked/suggested/encouraged/ the exhumation of a child’s body so that he could take photographs of it. In his own words (from Uganda: Babirye, The Girl from Katugwe from the Pulitzer Center Untold Stories site):
I explain to the chief of the community that I’m a journalist that I’m trying to expose the practice of child sacrifice. It’s hard, in my mind and my words, to make them understand the logic that led me there, late at night. We speak different languages, belong to different cultures, but we have the same human understanding; we both know this practice must be fought and exposed. I try not to speak as a journalist but simply as a human being, naked in front of something that has no explanation. The family appears to understand — so I push it a little further and, with their permission, I show them some pictures I took from similar cases I’ve been following through the past month. Everyone gathers around the computer, while I briefly explain the cases I have documented. I’m surprised and moved when the mother interrupts my conversation I’m having with the elder chief. “Thanks for being here” – she says, with a thin voice coming out from the deepness of an unimaginable sorrow.
Mr. Vernaschi was not exactly ‘exposing’ this issue. The Guardian, ABC News, the BBC, The Telegraph, Huffington Post to say nothing about Africa newspapers that have all covered this story before. But I digress.
He tells them that he needed ‘visual evidence’ to do the story, I quote him again:
At this point I feel the barriers have someway gone and I explain it is part of my job to gather what a journalist would call “visual evidences”. Of the many things I have done in my life, this was among the hardest. Being there, out of the blue, in the darkness of this creepy night asking a broken-hearted mother to show me the mutilated corpse of her daughter, is one thing that someway changed my perspective on life. But that is another story.
Actually what Mr. Vernaschi did was not ask the mother to show him the mutilated body, but in fact speak to the chief to arrange for men working with Mr. Vernaschi to dig it up so that he could take pictures for his ‘visual evidence’. And then he paid the chief. We do not know what he paid his ‘fixer’ and ‘helpers’.
Benjamin raised this as a serious ethical dubious, and some other pictures that the photographer made and published, including one that shows a fully naked child with his penis cut off and a catheter sticking out as a violation of the rights of the child. It would be had it been in the UK or any number of ‘civilized’ nations, where such a request, and such behavior would have been met with immediate denouncement and opprobrium. As it should be. Instead, since it was Africa and Africans, this behavior resulted in major publications and attention. Oh well.
Now it appears that there was more to Mr. Vernaschi’s shenanigans that what we first suspected. In what can only be a searing and final indictment of his methods, his integrity and his entire understanding of the role and responsibilities of a journalist and photojournalist, Anne Holmes of avigilantejournalist.com has revealed that in fact the entire story may have manufactured. Anne Holmes retracted an interview with the said Mr. Vernaschi and has posted a detailed account of the outcome of her asking some further questions about Mr. Vernaschi’s story on the killing and exhumation of the child. As we speak, it seems that the entire reportage is falling apart at the seams as Mr. Vernaschi scrambles around trying to cover his tracks, change his story, and revise claims that he made earlier and in writing. But her finding were summarized as:
His credibility as a journalist, however, has been seriously cast into doubt. I believe he truly felt that what he was doing was going to help bring attention to a very real problem, but it’s remarkable how easily we can delude ourselves when years spent covering violence makes the moral compass go haywire. Clearly he has a lot of thinking to do, and he will have to go to great pains to restore his reputation among his colleagues, but the western editorial world might overlook this issue just as they do so many others worth redressing.
I want to say a lot about this issue, but I have been beaten to it by others more articulate and insightful.
Tewfic El-Sawy spoke out in a post called POV: Marcho Vernaschi & Child Sacrifice,
asking that most dangerous of questions:
…what if Babirye and the baby boy were your children, your niece and nephew or even just a relative…or an acquaintance? Would you still have photographed and published the photographs…or is it because they’re “just” Africans?
Vernaschi is an award winning photographer….and well-experienced dealing with gruesome topics. Surely he could have photographed the story differently? Or is it about winning awards and applause from the rest of the lemmings?
Jorge Colberg at Conscientious spoke out in a post called The Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting Challenged which seemed to have been annoyed by the Pulitzer Center’s Jon Sawyer’s earlier dismissive treatment of Benjamin Chesterton’s raising of questions of ethics.
The original accusations of impropriety in reporting were raised on lightstalkers.org in a post called Illegal Exhumations: A Debate About Marco Vernaschi’s Methods. Many fine folks contributed to this discussion, and some of the responses, including comments from Nina Berman, are worth reading.
The Pulitzer Center has issued an apology, but not a retraction of the work. I find that indefensible. All of Mr. Vernaschi’s three stories (see here, here and here) remain on their site and in what can only be a judgement call of some serious doubt leaves their apology sounding rather hollow.
There are questions of deception and outright misrepresentation of facts here, even if Pulitzer had decided to ignore the issues of ethics. There are questions being raised on the very honesty and truth of the story that was produced, and the Pulitzer Center’s reputation and integrity is at significant risk. The work should be pulled from their site, and an investigation launched to either refute the accusations or reveal the truth of what actually transpired, how the story was produced and the action the photographer took to get it.
At this stage I can’t see how anything less would salvage the credibility of an institution I hold in the highest regard. The Pulitzer Center generally takes a hands off approach to it’s correspondence, which is fine as long as these correspondents live up to the assumption of integrity and professionalism. Clearly that is not so in the case of Mr. Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center should consider his behavior and actions a breach of trust and something requiring punitive and investigatory action. It would be the right thing to do, for both Mr. Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center and the essential means for both to salvage their damaged reputations.
Which brings to the one question that has been ringing in my mind since this episode raised it’s head, and that Anne Holmes herself raised in her post and it is this:
Why did Marco Vernaschi do it?
This is not an innocent question, but one that goes to the very heart of what publishers and news agencies consider to be appropriate ways of speaking of various regions of the world. What compelled Mr. Vernaschi to believe that crossing into this ethically and humanly questionable territory was essential for his story and his work? Its a question worth thinking about because it touches on the demands of the news industry, and the lengths photographers, young and old, feel they need to go to get their works published and/or seen and awarded.
Mr. Vernaschi works in a media eco-system. He is well aware of the preferences and prejudices of media outlets, including institutions that hand out awards at the end of the year. He is equally aware of the long heritage of photojournalism in Africa and how the continent and it’s people have been represented. Mr. Vernachi’s aesthetics of nightmarish images are not as interesting as they first appear if kept in context of the works of so many of other photojournalists who come and scour this continent for their pictures. That pressure to get that picture, and precisely that picture, emerges from a world that Mr. Vernaschi operates in – a world addicted to depictions of Africa as fanatical, maniacal, and depraved.
I have written about and questioned the very ethics of the industry that we work in (see How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide, and Staying Faithful To The Totality Of Experience Or New Frontiers In Photography, and Creating Tempests In A Teapot Or What Else Can A Photo Editor To Do and Only Interesting If Its Madness to suggest a few) and the pressures that are placed on photographers to come back with the ‘right’ picture.
I repeatedly wonder why photographers package their stories simplistically, and why if we insist on covering African only as a pathology must we do so by removing the broader political, economic and international realities that feed these pathologies.
For example, we here in Europe, are deeply implicated in the ongoing horrors of the Congo, and yet we refuse to speak about them, just as we are implicated in the genocide in Rwanda, or the slaughters in Angola and elsewhere. We are there, we are participating in Africa’s realities both good and bad: trading, supporting, advising, diplomatically protecting, extracting (natural resources), selling (arms, advisors, strategy) etc. and we continue to do so today. And yet all these stories are carefully excised of their connections, those that tie us to the horrors, to the sordid world of diplomacy, trade and influence that has repeatedly used weak and weakened nations for our benefit. We can’t seem to accept, or admit, for another example, that the reasons dead African immigrants wash up on the ‘golden’ shores of Europe may have some connection to our throttling and killing their agriculture and indigenous industries thanks to dumping agreements or sheer land grabs. Just an example. Chad is yet another example of cartoon like treatment by some of the best, determinedly avoiding speaking about history, about trajectories of politics, about oil, about allies and collaborations that make us a part of the story of that region, and the unfolding tragedy there.
Mr. Vernaschi’s transgression is not just that of an individual, but of an industry that never fails to trip over itself chasing the insane. And that is precisely what happened; the work was published and printed by major organizations, none of which even thought about the ethics of the act, or of the publishing. Mr. Vercaschi does not work alone and this issue is not just about his individual actions, but that of an entire institutional world blind to its behavior, immune to self-criticism and drowning in self-congratulations and myth-creation.
There are many ways to tell a story. In fact, if I am to take Mr. Vernaschi’s argument seriously that he made the story and the pictures because he wanted to effect change and help people, then I am left even more confused. Nothing in his writings, or his pictures, offers me an avenue where I, an individual thousands of miles away and equally many cultural and social worlds away, can understand how to act and do something about this issue. I have no avenue down which to travel to affect this change.
He seems not to understand that moving us to action comes from creating connections between us here and them there. It comes not from depicting them as deranged and alien, but finding a common humanity, possibilities of shared experiences, and depiction of their struggles and aspirations in a manner that can resonate with my own. It comes from findings ways to bridge the divide between our two worlds and showing me how my world is connected to theirs. Nothing in his work manages to do that. In fact, it repulses, and separates – my civilization and civility here, their barbarism and depravity there.
There is a crisis in the entire form and formalism of photojournalism. And in the industry that can’t seem to find within itself the intelligence and common sense to produce engaged, serious and insightful work. It continues to salivate on the sensational and continues to reduce complex societies and peoples into caricatures and vessels of its own paranoid fantasies.
(Unneccessary digression: see this rather pathetic, desperate and self-aggrandizing tripe by Elaine Laffont whose specious exercise in completely unsubstantiated causality and unverifiable outcomes allows her to call photojournalists ‘heroes of our age’! I will write more about this nonsensical response. A picture, to give only one example, taken in 1968 Ms Laffont did not really affect the direction of a war that only ended in 1975 and then too after millions more died to say nothing about the sheer hubris and arrogance of such a causal myth which is simply staggering and shameful!)
Back to the issue at hand.
Not enough has been said on this issue. There will be some who will argue – move on! I say, No! Remain, think and consider. This touches on the very fundamentals of the future and meaning of our chosen craft. What is the intent of the work we do, and who are it’s audience? What is the role of journalism in our society, and in particular, what and how shall we engage with the world around us so that we see them not as alien, but human and worthy of being taken seriously? Too many young photographers are seduced by the mythologies of the craft. Mythologies that are woven by the practitioners and their publishers. Its time to stop, take stock, and weave better stories, and suggest better and more meaningful means of working. Its time to produce real stories and do so by finding real humanity and a sense of equal dignity and respect.
UPDATE: The photographer Marco Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has responded to the questions that have been raised about the facts of this reportage on child sacrifice in Uganda. I am posting links to it here for your review.
Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: Uganda – Response to Critics
My comments on this will follow in a few days.