Full of sound and fury

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 Not the three photographs at the centre of the ethical debate—those have been retracted.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

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