What started as a long accusation in a lightstalkers thread has turned into a large-scale discussion involving a Pulitzer Center apology and coverage on the Guardian website. Marco Vernaschi’s coverage of child sacrifice in Uganda (another with the offending image removed and another) for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting initially looked like a hard and gritty glance into a little-known-outside-of-Africa problem of ritual child sacrifice. Issues of exoticism and the colonialist view notwithstanding, numerous bloggers began lobbing serious allegations of paying for access, illegally exhuming a child’s body to take pictures of the corpse, child exploitation, and outright fabrication. A Developing Story raised some strong questions of both Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center. The Pulitzer Center took time in responding to the allegations. Other bloggers led the charge, with Anne Holmes of Vigilante Journalist providing invaluable investigation into the case with Ugandan authorities. Holmes had previously interviewed Vernaschi for her blog and has retracted those articles due to concerns about Vernaschi’s ethics and journalistic process. The Pulitzer Center has issued a statement responding to these allegations, in which it agrees that the bounds of journalism, ethics, and human decency were crossed. Asim Rafiqui has a great perspective on the issue, as does Tewfic El-Sawey. Pay special attention Rafiqui’s analysis of the motivations for a photographer to manufacture a story as regards the media eco-system of photojournalism awards, publications looking for sensationalism, and historical portrayals of Africa. “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.”
As for the case at hand, a particular picture (now gone from the photographer’s site) depicted a young boy, nude, whose penis had been cut off and replaced with a catheter, all in full view. The image, duckrabbit argued, and which the Pulitzer Center eventually agreed with, violated the dignity of the child and, as such, went against various protections for children created by the UN, the UK, and other legal systems. The BBC, in fact, had previously run a photo of the boy, but did not show his face out of concern for the boy’s safety and dignity.
More worrying (well…I’m not sure there are levels of ethical reprehensibility here…it’s all pretty bad), Vernaschi asked a family to dig up the body of their murdered daughter so he could photograph the corpse (that picture has also been removed from the internet), as he explained in a post on the Pulitzer Center’s Untold Stories blog. The photographer said he was gathering evidence. Whether or not this is the role of the photojournalist, these actions cannot be excused. The exhumation violated local laws as well as most journalism and human ethics. While we can’t fault a photographer trying to drive home a story with shocking, hard-hitting pictures, staging a situation with money and violating bodies of the dead is well beyond any acceptable practices in journalism or human decency. These ethical transgressions poison the entire story.
And while this controversy has gotten the pictures (and perhaps the story) to a wide audience, Joerg Colberg at Conscientious sums up the problem quite well at the end of this post, “Lastly, lest we forget this, there actually is a real story that needs to be talked about: child sacrifice in Uganda. But what will people remember? Will they remember the facts about child sacrifice in Uganda? Or will they remember a photojournalist who needed to get photos so badly that he had a dead child dug up (using money to achieve his goals)?”
And while some would say that after the Pulitzer Center’s apology, the problem has been satisfactorily dealt with, Asim Rafiqui entreats us to go further: “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.”