Marco Vernaschi and a debate about ethics

The past week there has been a lot of debate over the ethics of Marco Vernaschi and in particular the way he obtained certain images while working on the story of child sacrifice in Uganda. To compound matters, the project is funded by the venerable Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The two main articles that question Vernaschi's methods are on A Developing Story and The Vigilante Journalist. What I want to focus on is one thing that troubles me and that is the fact that Vernaschi asked a family to exhume their daughter's body so he could photograph it. To do this I will examine the report of that night written by Vernaschi himself and published on the Pulitzer Center's website. You can read it there but I have reproduced it in full below. Vernaschi's text appears in italics and my commentary in standard text.


There are things in life that are hard to believe and what I had just heard is certainly among them. A local journalist and I had met for dinner to exchange some information about recent cases of child sacrifice. While we wait for our dinner to be served, he mentions the most recent case of a girl who had been mutilated and killed, in the village of Katugwe, about one hour from Kampala. “When did this happen?” I ask. “Today,” he answers, sipping his cola.

I decide to leave the restaurant and drive immediately to this place, led by another local journalist who was sharing dinner with us and who offered to show me the way. After almost 40 minutes we leave the main road and drive through the bush, eventually reaching the house of a broken family that is mourning the loss of Babirye Mergret, who was only 10 years old.

I’m emotionally torn, uncomfortable. I feel like I’m intruding in someone else’s pain, a lacerating pain. After presenting my condolences to the family I try my best to explain why I’m there. The mother of the girl looks at me initially without saying a single word; a look I will never forget. Her eyes were lost in the emptiness of a pain that goes beyond what a human being can stand. She has no more tears, no more words, no strength left. She sits still, on a couch with her younger son, in tears. The chief of the village is also in the house, with another elder and some women.

I explain to the chief of the community that I’m a journalist that I’m trying to expose the practice of child sacrifice. It’s hard, in my mind and my words, to make them understand the logic that led me there, late at night. We speak different languages, belong to different cultures, but we have the same human understanding; we both know this practice must be fought and exposed. I try not to speak as a journalist but simply as a human being, naked in front of something that has no explanation. The family appears to understand -- so I push it a little further and, with their permission, I show them some pictures I took from similar cases I’ve been following through the past month. Everyone gathers around the computer, while I briefly explain the cases I have documented. I’m surprised and moved when the mother interrupts my conversation I’m having with the elder chief. “Thanks for being here” – she says, with a thin voice coming out from the deepness of an unimaginable sorrow. “Thanks to you, for allowing me here” - I answer.

In reading this, some contradictions begin to appear. Vernaschi claims to be speaking to them 'simply as a human being' yet his motivation - his journalistic motivation - is at the top of his agenda. He admits to feeling like he is intruding, yet by his own admission pushes to show them photographs and establish the reason why he is there. This is fair enough, and it is difficult in such a situation to disentangle the human emotions from the professional concerns, but it seems to me that the mark of a true professional is knowing which part of your being to listen to and when.

At this point I feel the barriers have someway gone and I explain it is part of my job to gather what a journalist would call “visual evidences”. Of the many things I have done in my life, this was among the hardest. Being there, out of the blue, in the darkness of this creepy night asking a broken-hearted mother to show me the mutilated corpse of her daughter, is one thing that someway changed my perspective on life. But that is another story.

This is where things really start to unravel. You should be reading this and then saying "You did what?" There is a very specific way of gathering the particular 'visual evidences' Vernaschi is talking about here. It's called Forensic photography, (check here and here for starters) and contrary to what you might see on CSI it's not done in a haphazard and casual way. I don't know if Vernaschi is certified. From his text it would appear he is not. Contained in the above paragraph should be the answer to the question his conscience raised when asking that mother to exhume her daughter's mutilated corpse.

The mother and the elder chief talk, I don’t understand what they say, but then they consent to show me the body. I explain to them that this evidence will be crucial in several ways; I try to imagine the fear and pain Babirye has experienced while a monster ironically called a “healer” was killing her; I imagine her 10 year-old, wide-open eyes crying and staring at the machete that took her life away. And I firmly believe, more than ever since I’m in Uganda, that this horrible death can be turned into something that will help prevent other crimes like this.

We move out of the house. The night is silent and still. Three people start digging in the garden by the house, where the family had buried Babirye just a few hours before. With the utmost respect, and in silence, I follow the whole family while they move the body by the house. No one says a word but then the local chief approaches the corpse and explains in gruesome detail what happened to the girl. Words weren’t really necessary; the mutilations themselves speak loud. I take some pictures, trying to use the camera as a filter, something that I hope will protect me from this horrendous reality. It was like taking the express elevator to hell, breathing the smell of a dead, innocent child who was simply guilty of being unable to protect herself from madness.

Ok, so here we get a mix between factual accounting and poetic description. I'm certain that Vernaschi is truly determined that he is doing the right thing, and that he really is horrified by what he is seeing, but all of this speaks to me of the fact that he was unable to keep a clear head when taking these pictures. That although he is convinced his motives are to record evidence of a crime, in fact he is recording his emotional response to the situation. Again, there is nothing wrong with that per se, but as a professional photographer, a professional journalist, it is important to be able to at least understand which part of you is doing the work. If you are gathering evidence - an extremely cerebral and clinical task - and cannot put your emotions to one side for that most essential moment, then you are going to make mistakes.

After a few minutes Babirye is reburied and I go back in the house, following the mother. Her young son walks with her, hand in hand. His father had left their home, years ago. I thank the mother for allowing me to do my job, and she asks me if there’s anything I can do for her. So I dare, and I ask her if she would allow me to record a video interview. She consents, and while hugging her child, she says: “He’s the one who know every details, because he was around when this happened”. I first hesitate, but then I start to record. I will never forget the courage of these people, their dignity and strength. I made them a promise: The death of Babirye won’t be in vain. I assure them I’ll do everything I can to help them get justice, in a place where justice is a privilege for few and often depends on the money available. The mother tells me they don’t trust the court. They know of similar cases that eventually ended up with no conviction and no guilty. I think about the case of Mukisa, and of all the other cases I have seen, and I can’t blame her.

Once I’m done with the interview we talk for a while more, then I hug the mother and greet the elders and women. When I’m about to leave the house, the chief of the community ask me for a “contribution”. I’m a bit surprised, and I ask what this would be for. The mother says they have no money to hire a lawyer; she said there is a suspect but she’s afraid he will bribe the local police and they will let him go. My idea was at first to put the family in touch with RACHO, the NGO I’m working with, as I know they’re developing a program that will offer medical and legal assistance to the families of the victims. But I also know that RACHO is still a small organization, and despite the plans and their commitment, they have no funds. So I give the mother some money, making sure this amount will be enough to hire a lawyer. She’s a proud woman, and despite the amount being very modest, she says it’s enough. I hug her again, and at this point she grabs my hand, and say: “Please, don’t let us down”.

Again, there is a problem here that Vernaschi himself identifies and then provides the correct answer for, before ignoring his own thoughts. The correct answer is of course that the NGO he himself is working with should be the recipient of those funds. By his own account they are short of money. He could then direct this organisation to the family and the case he has just investigated and let them do their job. He should have told the Chief and the family that that was what he was going to do and that he would come back with them. Ethically, as a rule, a journalist should never ever pay the people they are reporting on. Everyone knows that the minute you do this you throw their entire story into dispute and moreover, it makes it harder for other journalists to do their job as people will then expect to get paid for their information. If, as in this case, you wish to make a contribution to a cause, then do it properly. Tell them you'll take them to a lawyer and then you can contribute your funds directly to that lawyer to take the case. Give the money to an NGO or a charity - even better. Of course, there are instances where money between individuals does change hands and it can be argued that sometimes - rarely - that can be ok, but this is not one of those instances. Even more disturbing is the fact that Vernaschi's account may not in fact be true. According to the report on The Vigilante Journalist, "the money he gave the mother was actually to influence her to allow for the illegal exhumation of the body..."

If true, then that is unethical in the extreme.

I drive back to Kampala, in total silence, with the image of Babirye in my eyes. I let the air from the window to ease my mind, trying to find comfort.

The next day, my phone rings. It’s Moses Binoga, Chief of the Police Department’s Anti-Human Sacrifice and Organ Trafficking section. He’s investigating Babirye’s case. Moses is a pragmatic, straightforward person; we have been working on other cases for the past month, sharing and exchanging information and we still have one month ahead. When I first visited him, at his office, he was uncomfortable of having journalists around, especially from western countries. He’s a proud Ugandan and he doesn’t want the world to think his country is the place where people murder children. To some extent, I understand his concern, but I’m glad to see he’s fair. In our conversations he has never tried to deny that child sacrifice is happening in Uganda.

On the phone, Moses tells me about Babirye and he invites me to join him in the field to follow the investigation. To his surprise, I answer that I already know about this case. We meet for dinner later this same night, on his return from Katugwe. We discuss the case and then he says: “I know you have been there last night, to photograph the corpse.”

Hold on. Did Vernaschi just say he'd been working with the Chief of the Police Department’s Anti-Human Sacrifice and Organ Trafficking section. This is amazing. If that was the case, the minute Vernaschi heard about Babirye this should have been the first person he called.

In our collaboration over the past month I had never forgotten that Binoga represents a government institution -- and that some people in that government wouldn’t be happy with the kind of story I was covering. I have always had some concern he could have sent someone to arrest me or to seize my equipment, and for this reason I always made sure to leave a back-up of my work in safe hands. That night, I understood we were really partnering. If he wanted to make my life difficult, this would have been the perfect chance. Instead, he simply told me I should have informed him, and that what I did wasn’t legal.

This is really troubling. Not only did Vernaschi act according to questionable ethics, he also acted illegally while working on a story in a country where he was in contact with both an NGO and a government department who were dealing with the same issues. Despite these connections, he felt the need to rush out in the middle of the night to gather evidence without contacting any of the organisations. Furthermore, upon arriving at his destination and finding the family distraught and the victim buried, he didn't say he was connected to people who could help and that he would return, he asked them to dig up the body. Personally I find all this galling. If you were a lone reporter, struggling to find the truth in a place where everyone is against you and you are the sole investigator, then yes I might understand these actions, but the fact of the matter is that there are professional organisations working to investigate and prevent such crimes and Vernaschi was in contact with these organisations.

But Moses is a committed officer and he knows the reasons that pushed me to visit a family in mourning in the middle of the night are good reasons. He understands the meaning and value of the word “evidence;” he deals with that himself, on a daily basis. I remember that once I told him: “Cops and journalists somehow are the same: the only difference is that journalists have no guns, while cops take terrible pictures”. He agreed. After sharing some thoughts, Moses drives back home, and so I do. A few days later we meet in his office again, to organize a trip to Gulu, in the north of the country; I had some clues leading to a suspected organ trafficker so I asked him to join me. Unfortunately, I was on a false track, so in that case nothing happened.

Two days before I left Uganda, I learned of a break in Babirye’s case. Three suspects, arrested by Moses Binoga, are currently under investigation. Two of them were a man and his wife, people Babirye’s mother had asked to look after her child; the third was a “traditional healer.” The trio had acted smartly: they buried the corpse in the middle of the forest, far from the village, and in order to make the search more difficult they dug different holes. The whole village where Babirye lived was involved in the search, including the child’s 9 year-old brother.

A few days ago I received an email from Moses; among other things, he explained me that “the situation has continued to improve. What we want is to maintain vigilance of public sensitization and offering psychological counseling and some medical assistance to the survival victims and families of those who lost dear ones”.

Despite all the difficulties and limits that Binoga faces on a daily basis, he’s been able to send a strong message – that justice will be pursued, and perpetrators will be brought to account.

Honestly I hope that this is true. And I do believe that Vernaschi does deeply care about the situation and that he wants his photographs to help affect change so that the barbaric act of child sacrifice is stopped, wherever it may occur. However, the fact that the storm of controversy his photographs have generated are all about how he took those pictures, the ethics and the actions involved show to me that he has failed in his job. This is a media saturated world and important stories are already difficult enough to tell without them turning into a debate over the personal ethics of the photographer/reporter. There are a lot of hard working journalists out there and it is cases like this that make the job harder, that make the general public doubt the veracity of the work and do nothing to further the causes the work itself is about. I cannot help but think about someone like Susan Meiselas, who is so dedicated to making sure her work is seen in the proper context, who works so hard to get her facts straight and whose approach is as scientific as it is creative. This work by Vernaschi seems to me to be the exact opposite of that; photographs made through a gut reaction rather than journalistic integrity. The photographs are visceral, stylistically sensational and of a horrific subject, but visual evidence of the type I believe Vernaschi was aiming for they are not. Now, given the problematic way in which they were obtained, my fear is that all his work will have been in vain and that everything he hoped to achieve with these photographs will be overshadowed by the methods involved and a debate over his ethics. And that is the real tragedy here.

1 comment:

maydaypress said...

Thanks a lot for taking time to go through Marco´s statement and put it into the right context. Please have a look at another troubling story in our latest blog. The question here is: Who moved chairs around in the presidents house after he was murdered in Guinea-Bissau in March 2009: