It’s depressing to read the fuss over that excessively Photoshopped shot of that Icelandic volcano whose name no one can actually spell, most recently at the Toronto Star‘s photo blog. The Star demonstrates excellent judgment in declining to attempt the spelling, but pretty poor judgment in the discussion of the issue.
The discussion is aimed at a general audience who might complain that the photo looks fake, which of course it does. The photo looks horrible; it’s the typical output of someone who has just discovered the saturation slider. But is there a real ethical issue here?
Not unless you decide that the important thing about a news photo is that the colours pop.
None of the content has been changed; the photo has just been dolled up in an attempt to make it look more spectacular—to improve its quality as eye candy, that is.
Never mind the more serious ethical questions in photojournalism. Never mind the ways in which photographic “truth” is manipulated by framing, timing, and the choice of which photo to run. Never mind that photojournalism is the one area outside the editorial page where one is permitted—encouraged—to express a point of view, a point of view that the mass audience tends to accept as truth.
No, the important ethical issue is oversaturating a picture in an attempt to make it look cooler.
Has Photoshop destroyed our ability to think about pictures in anything but the most superficial ways?
In light of the volume of negative commentary that we’ve seen on Marco Vernaschi’s Ugandan child sacrifice story, I think it’s only fair to call attention to his response posted at Untold Stories today.
Some of his points are entirely reasonable. For example, some of the criticism levelled at Vernaschi has taken the statements of Moses Binoga at face value, without considering that Binoga’s statements may themselves have been speculative or self-serving. The willingness of some critics to take Binoga at face value while second-guessing anything Vernaschi says suggests, shall we say, an interest in the grinding of axes.
I think it’s also fair to point out that the allegation made by Anne Holmes, that Babirye Margret’s murder may not have been a case of child sacrifice at all, which implies that the facts were misrepresented, is supported only by an unnamed “contact in Africa who knows a great deal about ritual sacrifice on the continent.” Yet Binoga seems to be treating this as a child sacrifice. I do not think, therefore, that it’s fair to suggest that Vernaschi is misrepresenting that case.
Anyone working in the photographic field who appreciates the need for moving out of the nineteenth into the twentieth century … out of the craft approach and into technology … should read, master, and keep this book in his personal library. Any serious photographer who does not know the essentials of at least the first five chapters of Photographic Sensitometry is working in the dark and risks obsolescence by not utilizing the capabilities of his medium.
Flap copy to Photographic Sensitometry by Hollis N. Todd and Richard D. Zakia, 2nd edition, March, 1974.
That the tone reproduction methods of Chapters V and XIII are thus incomplete (although sound in principle) indicates that a great amount of theoretical and experimental work is yet to be done. That the methods have been explored even to this extent only for pictorial photography suggests the need for applying them to other photographic imaging situations. Photographic sensitometry is, like other technologies, in the process of rapid change. Far as we have come in a century, the next century will surely take us unimaginably farther yet.
Final paragraph of the same.
Criticism of Marco Vernaschi’s Ugandan child sacrifice story continues, regardless of the Pulitzer Center’s apology. Some of it, I think, is simply piling on; not all of the accusations hold water. But some of the criticism is valid. It’s disturbing to learn, for example, that the Pulitzer Center went ahead and published the story, and the questionable photos, despite having been warned of serious problems with the work.
But there’s another serious problem with the work that no one has discussed in detail: the photos themselves. Not the three photographs at the centre of the ethical debate—those have been retracted. I mean the remaining 65 photographs through which Vernaschi attempts to enlighten us concerning child sacrifice in Uganda. The photography itself is good; the photojournalism, less so.
I will not be the first to complain that these photos play on stereotype to show us a Uganda pulled straight from Heart of Darkness. They’re highly stylized photos evoking darkness and fear, which consistently present superstition and poverty. Most seem to have been shot at night, and many of them reveal little of their subjects, thanks to blur; they’re often more concerned with a mood of crazed dread than with a frank portrayal of their subjects. They’re full of sound and fury, but signify nothing.
These 65 photos revolve around four main subjects: the ritual activities of faith healers (or “witch doctors”), the plight of street kids, the imprisonment of street kids, and ostracized war veterans. Captions attempt to illustrate the linkages between these elements and the main subject, child sacrifice, without much success.
I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that demands you shoot not that subject, but this subject, or that insists that “negative” portrayals of Africa be replaced with “positive” ones. The story is the story, and you shoot the story.
But here, there is no story. What we have is an emphasis on individual photographs rather than on using photography as a means of visual storytelling. The photography overwhelms the photojournalism, and the understanding that emerges is incomplete.
Pieces are missing. We know, for example, that Vernaschi was in contact with Moses Binoga, the head of the Anti-Human Sacrifice unit of the Ugandan police, but we don’t see him, or officers who work for him, or gain any understanding of their work. In fact, the only hint of police activity in Vernaschi’s archive comes in the form of captions advising us that the police clean up the streets by throwing street kids in jail.
Surely, this is an incomplete portrayal of the police role.
We also know that Vernaschi was working with Paul Odida, head of an NGO called RACHO, but we don’t see him, either, or see any of the activities of his organization. Captions inform us that there are two NGOs to every street kid in Kampala, but we see none of the NGO activity.
Surely, this is an incomplete portrayal of the part played by NGOs.
There’s no denying that this is a difficult story to photograph. You can’t photograph sacrifices in progress, for obvious reasons. And so Vernaschi was left to photograph the various elements surrounding the main subject: the faith healers, the street kids at risk, reminders of the civil war that created a generation of orphans. Photography is a limited medium, and this story is a real challenge for a photographer.
But the limitations of photography are exacerbated by incomplete coverage. I can’t help thinking that the missing pieces would do much to aid in understanding the linkages between Vernaschi’s various subjects, and to the practice of child sacrifice. It’s unfortunate that, for whatever reason, Vernaschi chose to leave parts of the story untold.
This morning, I was pleased to find that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting responded swiftly to criticism of Marco Vernaschi’s photographs of Babirye Margret, who was exhumed so that he could photograph her remains, and Mukisa, a three-year-old boy whose genitals were mutilated.
Jon Sawyer, Executive Director, posted an apology yesterday on behalf of the Pulitzer Center and of Vernaschi:
Vernaschi’s photographs are gut-wrenching, black-and-white portraits of pain and abuse. We share his belief that photography can play a powerful role in mobilizing public opinion, in Uganda and beyond, to stop this abuse. But we now believe — and Vernaschi agrees — that we were wrong in the way we handled the cases of Mukisa and Babirye.
Sawyer goes on to note that this error “had the effect of focusing attention on the actions of one journalist, as opposed to a horrific crime that needs to be exposed.”
He’s right, in a sense: the side-show surrounding Vernaschi’s conduct has received more attention than the story Vernaschi was trying to tell. That story is important, and it should be told—but that end cannot justify Vernaschi’s means. And there remains the question of how the story is told—how the presentation defines the story, how Uganda is represented, whether the photographic narrative expands our understanding or plays on existing stereotypes.
In my post yesterday on this subject, I said that I hoped Vernaschi would recognize his error. It seems that he has. Now we can turn to the story.
These are the facts: the Italian photographer Marco Vernaschi, working on a story dealing with child sacrifices and mutilations in Uganda, a story supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, persuaded a family to exhume the recently buried body of their murdered daughter (photo here), so that he could photograph it. It is also a fact that he gave them money—about $70.
Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center are now getting plenty of criticism for this, and also for publishing (as part of the same story) a full frontal photograph of a naked child whose penis had been cut off.
It is easy to respond to partial information with indignation. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, in attempting to understand their possible motives. I have no doubt that Vernaschi was motivated by a desire to tell an important story, that he genuinely believes that these photographs are vital to his story, and that he genuinely believes that convincing a family to dig up their murdered daughter for his lens was justified by the importance of that story.
And there is no question that story is important. Abominations of the sort Vernaschi shows us should—must—be dragged into the light.
But there is also no question that, in exhuming a body for the purpose of photographing it, and in giving a payment to the family who dug up that body, Vernaschi was well over the ethical line—so far over that I’m stunned anyone attempts to argue the point.
I barely know how to begin.
The exhumation was illegal under Ugandan law.
The exhumation offends the (western) audience’s standards of propriety regarding respect for the dead.
The exhumation brings journalism into disrepute, by fueling the notion that photojournalists will do anything to get a picture, and that the more disturbing and graphic that picture is, the better.
We also face the question of race. Would we exhume a white child from, say, Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the sake of a photojournalist’s camera? No; the idea is ridiculous. How can anyone believe this is acceptable when the child is Ugandan?
And there is the question of payment. It isn’t enough to act ethically; one must appear to have acted ethically. Vernaschi says that he gave money to the family for legal assistance after the fact, and there is no reason to doubt this, but no one can deny that this money could also be seen as an incentive.
Vernaschi has defended himself by saying that his photographs are important as evidence, but there has been no suggestion that they’ve actually been used that way. Furthermore, Andre Liohn, another photojournalist covering this story, has said that the police investigation was closed before the body was buried. If this is the case, what evidence Vernaschi’s photographs might furnish is very much in question.
There is a strong suggestion here that the family was convinced to exhume their daughter in the belief that Vernaschi’s photographs would make a difference. Vernaschi’s own account doesn’t significantly differ on that score.
But Vernaschi’s slideshow for this story includes 68 images, of which this girl—Babirye Margret—are only two. And how many hundreds of pictures are in the discard pile? Are we really to believe that these pictures, and only these pictures, are key to stopping child sacrifice in Uganda?
Do we really need these specific pictures as evidence that these practices are horrific?
We do not.
Looking at Vernaschi’s slideshow, I find myself wondering if the publication of these pictures, and the photo of three-year-old Mukisa, whose penis was cut off, isn’t symptomatic of a problem with the work overall. These photos, for the most part, communicate little. We have many shots of kids in prisons or on the streets. We have photos of “healers” at work. And most of them tell us little; they’re high-contrast black-and-white pictures in which detail is lost to lighting and to various in-camera blur effects.
I feel that, without the three graphic pictures, Vernaschi’s story amounts to little. And I think that may well be why he felt they were necessary. But this doesn’t justify what he did to get them; instead, it suggests he should have found a different way to tell his story.
I am sure that Vernaschi had the best intentions. I hope he’ll recognize that his actions didn’t live up to them.
Since I was in Toronto, and since someone I know (Mark Sampson) was reading, I found my way to the latest installment of the Draft Reading Series on Sunday afternoon—good readings from all involved and a fine way to spend my Sunday.
And I took my camera.
I’m still working to find the right black magic for Neopan 400 with a two-stop push. Last time out I had poor shadow detail, so this time, I sharply reduced agitation. Now I have no contrast. So next time.
This morning, I bought myself a new gadget. I think it was obsolete by lunch. It took Nikon over twenty years to get from F1 to F3; it took about 12 to get from D1 to D3, which is actually seven or more cameras disguised as three. The curve of technology over time is getting scary steep.
One consequence of this, of the rapid advancement in metering and autofocus systems, is that it’s getting pretty hard to make a technically bad photograph. People get good-looking pictures more or less right away.
It’s a strong reminder that all you really need is a good eye and a light-tight box.
I’m acutely uncomfortable with many of the critiques leveled at photojournalism in practice, because while they make many valid points, they are often as reductive and simplistic as the cliches and prejudices they attack.
Do not show us famine victims, the critics cry; show us the farmers with produce, the flourishing markets, and so forth. Not everyone is starving! Cease this pornography of victimhood, stop stripping people of their dignity, etc., etc.
That’s all very nice, and I agree in principle. The unique strength of photography is its ability to freeze and isolate a single moment, within the boundaries of the frame, and this is also its greatest weakness. Photography—or more accurately, the single photo, which has formed the traditional practice of newspaper photojournalism—lends itself to simple stories. It is not good at context.
But at the same time, let’s acknowledge that the very reason that cameras are in famine-stricken country X is that it is famine-stricken. Cameras need a story they can tell — a visual story — which relates to famine, and this means famine victims. Traditional practice isn’t bad because it’s stupid, or racist, or pornographic; it’s simply limited by the medium and by the fact that news is, by definition, bad news.
I also can’t avoid pointing out that the insistence that the story is not this, but that, is ultimately a political argument. It’s not a demand that we represent the truth; it’s a demand that we represent a particular, pre-defined point of view as an alternative to another, also pre-defined, point of view.
This is why I particularly appreciate this post by David Campbell on famine photography, which avoids the usual simplistic complaints (and strikes a blow for accuracy):
To be fair to the photographer, in these circumstances we have to accept that in large part he has accurately portrayed the people in the feeding centre. But is the feeding centre the real locus of famine? Can a photograph represent the many causes of this emergency? And what is the effect of these stereotypes once again marking Sudan as the “hungriest place on earth”?
One of my refrains for how we should understand photographs in these situations is that the problem lies with the absence of alternatives as much as it does with the presence of the stereotypes. Which means I should conclude with a double-page spread published by The Guardian this morning on the Sudanese elections. Clearly any place that is home to both food insecurity and a practicing democracy cannot be simply represented.
The solution isn’t not this, but that; the solution is to do both this and that.
I knew I had a pink house of my own in my files someplace. This one seems a little more Mellencamp.
(Shortly after I took this picture, a kindly gentleman offered to jam my camera up my ass.)