Pulitzer Center Update

Translation of "Marco's Impossible Choice," from la Repubblica

The following is an English translation of the post "L'impossibile scelta di Marco" ("Marco's impossible choice") written by Michele Smargiassi, which appeared on the website of the Italian newspaper la Repubblica.

By Michele Smargiassi

This is a story that will challenge consciences and emotions. Already it is, in blogs across the world, but surprisingly not in Italy, although the photographer who has sparked the controversy is Italian himself. His name is Marco Vernaschi, he was born in Turin, he's thirty-seven years old, he won a World Press Photo award, and he is now working, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, on a topic that would make anybody shiver: ritual sacrifices of children in Uganda by the hands of so-called "healers," an expression of unjustified cruelty hidden behind the concept of "traditional ritualism," exploded over the course of the last few years and which even the local government is trying to repress.

In January and February, Vernaschi worked in the field collecting visual proof of the crimes (above, a detail from one of his shots). During one of his investigations, he stumbled upon the grief of a family whose ten-year-old daughter had been mutilated and killed that same day. After a long discussion with the family, in which the photographer explained the reasons and motivations behind his investigative work, the mother accepted to show him her daughter's disfigured corpse, exhuming it from the ground where it had just been buried. Vernaschi photographed the corpse. As he was leaving, the village elder asked him for "a contribution" to help the family pay their legal expenses. Vernaschi accepted to give the mother the cash he had in his pocket, around $70.

These are the facts as told by the photographer himself, in a report published on the Pulitzer Center's website alongside the photos (which have since been taken down). A storm immediately broke, as soon as another photographer, having seen Vernaschi's shots on Facebook, decided to track the steps Vernaschi took in Uganda, ending up with a very different interpretation of the story, one decidedly accusatory.

Because of this and other images, bloggers everywhere, newspapers, and various other dogmatic censors, have covered Vernaschi in a downpour of accusations and suspicions (I should thank a different Marco, a frequent commentator on this blog, for pointing out some of these accusations). They say he violated the law that forbids exhumations, that he bought off a family's grief, that he stepped all over professional ethics and personal sympathy, that he ignored the dignity of children as stated in international children's rights codes. To tell the truth, many of these bitter comments seem to focus exclusively on the fact that Vernaschi photographed a child's naked corpse: like this was only a matter of underage pornography (the New York Times, which once pondered similar issues about the now world-famous photo by Nick Ut, of the little Vietnamese girl naked and crying, disfigured by napalm, chose to overcome the dilemma by publishing the shot).

Vernaschi has responded to some of his critics, admitting to having taken a chance, but explaining his choice by pointing to the ethical value of his final work, and asking to be judged not in abstract terms, but within the context of his concrete actions.

It is not easy to take a clear-cut moral stance on this issue. Or, rather, it would be easier and more convenient to go for an unconditional denunciation of Vernaschi's work, allowing us to evade a difficult question or two about the job of a photo reporter. Which really is that of being an eyewitness, a "public eye." A role that remains true even when a photographer goes and sees what we don't like to see (neither know: because without seeing, we wouldn't know, or we wouldn't consider worthy of attention), what disturbs us, what disgusts us.

I don't personally know Marco Vernaschi. Therefore, what I write has nothing to do with whatever personal impression I might have of him. From what I read, and giving him the benefit of the doubt (which can always be taken back later if presented with evidence to the contrary), I do understand that he got himself in the most impossible of situations for any photographer with a conscience.

He learns about a horrific crime, only a piece of a greater puzzle of inhuman violence that can and must be denounced and stopped. He's working specifically to that end. He knows he has a tool, his camera, capable of transforming yet another denunciation of the kind usually brought forward by humanitarian organizations, often quickly forgotten, in a cry that won't leave anybody untouched. He knows that in order to act he must overcome his own internal discomfort, partially overstepping established ethics. He decides that his task is documenting: that is the reason why he's there in the first place. I can't just simply disagree with him. In my opinion, photographs need to be shot, even the most disturbing and unsettling ones, if there is a reason to do so, and the reason here is the duty to bear witness to something that, otherwise, would be lost, or ignored, or censored. Closing one's eyes is photography's foremost lie. As far as showing to the public what one has seen and recorded, this is a decision that can be made later, with a clearer mind, having weighed all pros and cons, opportunity versus ethics.

But what happens when photographing is not only bearing witness to a situation, but also interfering in it? When intervening implies the transgression of ethical and legal boundaries? That is the moment when a photographer-witness is most alone, alone with his conscience. Had photographers been willing to stop before any prohibition, before moral predicaments, we would be deprived of many images from the past that we now believe it is important to see. Does this mean that the end justifies the means, always? Does this mean that the opportunity to denounce a crime gives us the right to cause "collateral damage?" According to Vernaschi, his transgression had been somewhat shared with those who would suffer from it, and not simply forced on them. But is this a good-enough excuse?

Tomoko's photo comes to mind here, the young phocomelic girl photographed by W. Eugene Smith in Minamata, with the permission of her parents, in an effort to denounce a case of criminal industrial pollution. Years after the shot, which was published all over the news and became the touching emblem of injustice, it was withdrawn as per the request of Tomoko's family. What happened then is what I think can happen to any extreme image: the waves of history, the changing tides of ethical versus unethical, end up determining an image's destiny (even though I am convinced that that photo is now part of humanity's visual and moral heritage, and that killing it was not only impossible but also unfair.)

And I also remember another photo, of the Sudanese girl slowly dying of starvation under a vulture's patient and cruel eyes. That shot won the Pulitzer Price (what a coincidence), but its author Kevin Carter, who was a troubled South African photographer but certainly not a cynic, was attacked as the "human vulture" for having failed to predict that child's destiny and later killed himself.

It is difficult to be a simple witness to human tragedy. But we need witnesses, don't we?

I think Vernaschi chose to bear the weight of an extreme choice, outside of day-to-day ethics, without escaping its burden. I think, from what I read, that he is willing to admit to the limits and the shakiness of his choice, just like I, the reader, am authorized to think that his belief that he was in the right might have carried him away, providing him with an excuse to march forward in spite of the inner turmoil that I think and hope he felt at that moment. Those who know him will judge his good faith. History will judge on the right of that photograph to exist. For now I can say no more. I provided you with as many links as I found so that you can make up your mind, form your own opinion. Now I would like you to tell me what it is that you think. Then maybe later, I will come back to it.

Translated by Valentina Pasquali