On digging up the truth, and Marco Vernaschi
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.