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Marco Vernaschi responds to his critics

April 25, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Full of sound and fury

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

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 Not the three photographs at the centre of the ethical debate—those have been retracted.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.

Pulitzer Center responds

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

On digging up the truth, and Marco Vernaschi

April 21, 2010 4 comments

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.

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