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Open Letter to The Pulitzer Center and Mr. Vernaschi

I should like to take the time to address some of the issues raised in Marco Vernaschi’s response to his critics on the Pulitzer Center’s website. Both Jon Sawyer, director for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, and Mr. Vernaschi took me to task last week for publishing Mr. Binoga’s statement as though it were concrete fact, and I was asked by Mr. Vernaschi to amend my text to include subsequent communications he had with Mr. Binoga, which are now available on their latest post. Please read the latter now if you have not done so already. My response to them is what I shall say again here, that the comments section was open for either party to post this information, and that I published the communication I received from Mr. Binoga in full as it was received, without making any inferences, in order to explain how it was that I arrived at my decision to retract the interview. I am not responsible for those who took it out of context or who read it to be an absolute truth, but clearly Mr. Binoga sent it to me, despite his previous silence on this matter, because he wished for it to be published.

Mr. Vernaschi has now admitted to exhuming three more bodies, which I suspected for some time was the case. It is good that he has gone public with this, but I feel there remain a number of burning questions that have largely been skirted. The Pulitzer Center has decided to continue the reporting, but the work is being drowned out by the shockwaves still rippling throughout the community as we grapple with the surreal nature of the information we have been asked to digest. I should like to invite Mr. Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center to honestly answer some of the questions that continue to plague me and many of my colleagues, as I feel that only then will we all be able to truly lay this to rest.

But before I do that, I would like to point out that Mr. Vernaschi’s statement, “allegations that are false and defamatory will be addressed within a legal frame, not as part of a blog debate,” was read as a threat, and has caused many to fear speaking their minds in public. This has not truly opened up the arena for the debate they profess to be embracing, but rather it has sent legions cowering in fear of big American lawyers. It is true, it can sometimes be a fine line between public outrage and defamation, but I also feel quite confident in saying that it is asking a great deal of your public to accept that such acts were committed in the name of a profession we deem to represent the fourth regulatory function of our society, after the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. As such, we maintain that there are certain standards by which we judge this practice, and it is the right of all citizens to voice their opinions when they feel that something is unjust, or that one of these institutions is not functioning according to their expectations. Trust between the public and the press is paramount, and many of us feel that this report on child sacrifice in Uganda has broken that covenant profoundly. I therefore ask all parties to consider the following questions with care, and encourage Mr. Vernaschi and the Pulitzer Center to accord us some transparency.

If we are to believe Mr. Vernaschi when he says that his changing the name and details on the caption of this young girl’s corpse from “Jessica,” age 12 to “Babirye Mergret,” age 10, was in fact an “attempt to be as scrupulous as possible in reporting the facts and documenting how we obtained them,” it would be worthwhile to examine the chronology and details around this issue to see if we, the public, arrive at the same conclusion.

Sometime around March 15, Mr. Vernaschi publishes (* see note) the photos of Babirye on his archive with a caption that reads “Jessica,” aged 12. Notice there is no last name. Within the standards and practices of journalism, it is considered bad form to only have the first name of a subject, unless anonymity is the aim, and virtually no news outlets will publish material where only the first name has been acquired.

A mysterious photograph of a coffin on Mr. Vernaschi’s website, with no concrete information in the caption, also perplexed me. The coffin looked smaller than “Jessica’s” body, and I could not understand, if this was also “Jessica,” why this information was not included in the caption as well.

On April 3, the interview is published on the Vigilante Journalist with Babirye’s picture and a caption reading, “Jessica, a 12 year old girl, was first raped before being mutilated and killed in a horrific way. They chopped off her arm and leg, cut out her heart and removed her brain from the skull with a machete.” We now know that the forensics data was also incorrect, and that the girl was not raped, and that her brain and heart had not been removed, according to official police reports.

The Pulitzer Center receives Mr. André Liohn’s mail on April 14 and forwards it to Mr. Vernaschi. The mail informed them that he had been to Uganda and discovered that Mr. Vernaschi had illegally exhumed the body of Babirye for the purposes of taking a photograph. Mr. Vernaschi subsequently changes the caption on his website to read Babirye Mergret, but forgets to do so on my blog. I receive Mr. Liohn’s mail a day later and confront Mr. Vernaschi. He does not deny the act, and I point out the caption discrepancy. His response was as follows:

“You ask datas about discrepancies. The name that was first Jessica and the age that was 12 is because, as I explained, RACHO gave me a list names of victims, and the name and age of Jessica, which is another victim, was put instead of Babirye’s. It was a typo error.”

Yet, Mr. Liohn informed me that when he went through police records, he could not find a Jessica, and that he was able to identify Babirye by matching up the mutilations depicted in the photograph.

So, Mr. Vernaschi, burning question number 1: Who is Jessica?

On April 18, Pulitzer Center and Mr. Vernaschi publish the account of the exhumation with photographs of Babirye’s body, unleashing a storm of public criticism.

On April 21, the Pulitzer Center and Mr. Vernaschi, decide to remove the photographs of Babirye, and along with it goes the mysterious coffin image, raising suspicion among many of us following the details of this case. Then, on April 24, Mr. Liohn posts this comment on the Pulitzer site making reference to the photograph of the coffin:

“I also like to invite everyone here to pay attention in another short part of Mr. Vernaschi’s article. “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.” If you again visit Mr. Vernaschi’s web page you will not find any picture showing a similar case. At least not anymore. I like to ask Mr. Vernaschi why he deleted the picture MRV_Aedit (14).jpeg. This picture was documenting a second murder. Please Mr. Vernaschi, tell us the story behind this picture as well.”

On April 25, Mr. Vernaschi and Mr. Sawyer issue a response to public criticism wherein Mr. Vernaschi admits to exhuming three more bodies during his time in Uganda. In the article, he does not, however, explain for us, at length, as he did in his post about Babirye, the details of the exhumation of the three children who were killed in Luwero in late 2009. So naturally, questions loom about the minutia surrounding this incident. Here is what Mr. Vernaschi tells us about the mysterious coffin picture:

“This image was taken in Luwero, where three children were killed by their father and grandfather who had started a “cult”. We visited the family with four members of RACHO, the local NGO that has worked to expose and combat child sacrifice and that has followed this case since before I arrived in Uganda this January. We interviewed the mother of the children, who was held captive while her husband took part in their murder. A villager then led us by the hut were the children had been killed, and showed us where their corpses had been buried by the murderers. They also led us to the children’s graves and agreed to show us the coffins of the three children. Photos of the coffins were taken in full agreement with the family, with no payment and only after informing the local chief of police in Luwero.”

Burning question number 2: By “informing the local chief of police” do you mean that you acquired the necessary legal papers to authorize this exhumation, and are you prepared to produce these?

Burning question number 3: If Mr. Vernaschi got official permission to exhume these three bodies, why did he exhume Babirye illegally?

The bodies of these three children were first buried sometime between October and November 2009, and were legally exhumed by Mr. Binoga on January 4, 2010, and then reburied. It is reasonable to assume that they were badly decomposed by the time Mr. Vernaschi got to them. In fact, NTV journalist Tonny Muwangala, who covered the official exhumation, writes, “the bodies had fully decomposed and this, I saw and got the video images as the whole process went on.”

If we are to follow the logic of Mr. Sawyer regarding the exhumation of Babirye’s body and consider this passage: that “[Mr. Binoga] had seen no photos of [Babirye’s] body himself and could not speak as to its condition – a statement that gives considerable weight to Vernaschi’s belief that it was important to gather visual evidence of what had happened,” then:

Burning question number 4: What was the purpose in disturbing the dead in the case of these three children, since a photograph of a coffin tells us nothing whatsoever about child sacrifice and cannot be seen as “evidence” of such?

The chronology of events is key to understanding how this all came to pass. We are inclined to assume that when Mr. Vernaschi says that he shows photographs of “similar cases” that he’s been following to the family of Babirye, that these are the three bodies he previously exhumed, but Mr. Vernaschi does not provide exif data or dates in his captions for us to get a sense of what happened when.

Burning question number 5, 6 and 7: Why does Mr. Vernaschi disregard the standards and practices of our profession by not providing exif data and omitting the who, what, when, where and why from his captions? Why should we demand that of some but not of others? Is Mr. Vernaschi an artist or a journalist?

In Mr. Vernaschi’s response to his critics, bloggers like myself have been labeled as “lemmings” and accused of making a “desperate push for self-promotion.” I cannot speak for others, but as for myself, I can say this: I was drawn into this scandal because I published an interview with Mr. Vernaschi, who, I might add, seemed rather all too eager to promote his work, so much so that it could be considered a breech of the contract he had with the Pulitzer Center as they still had two weeks before “going to press.” When I learned of the exhumations, I retracted the interview and felt it was necessary for me to explain to my public why I did so, and to reaffirm my standards of ethics, lest my own name also be drawn through the mud. In the interim, I have learned of three more exhumations, have been called a “lemming,” felt threatened by the law for speaking out in protest, and have been accused of trying to catch my 15 minutes of fame.

Burning question number 8: Did you really expect me to not take this as a call to defend myself?

Let us make the distinction between self-promotion and self-preservation.

This will not make me popular. At least so far, I seem only to have gathered a few lemmings around me. Friends may be supporting me in private, a few colleagues have done so publicly, other photographers are surely imagining I may “attack” them next. In the meantime, deadlines have passed, personal obligations have been neglected, and I continue to be consumed with the details of this story for one reason only: because the important questions have been ignored or circumvented.

So Mr. Vernaschi and Mr. Sawyer, if you also wish to have some peace, please do us all a favor and set to putting our doubts to rest. Your readership, I am sure, represents a vast demographic, a number of whom it turns out are also journalists. It is our duty to ask questions and our nature to not be satisfied until they have been properly addressed. So finally, Mr. Sawyer, since you seem to be embracing this civic format of debate, it would serve your public well if you could answer us this:

Burning question number 9: When and under what circumstances did you learn of the exhumations, and what rational process did you go through to arrive at your decision to publish such material?

I invite everyone to participate in this on-line discussion, both journalists and lay persons. The links contained within this post have comment sections where I encourage you to post your views and join this crucial debate.

Sincerely,

Anne Holmes

NOTE: To assuage the fears of many who wrote to me in private, and others who silently wonder, I refer you to a basic legal explanation of libel, defamation, and slander here.

* I first saw Mr. Vernaschi’s photographs sometime on March 15 when he posted them to Facebook, but it is not clear the exact date they were actually uploaded to his archive. In the interest of precision, I make note of it here.

UPDATE: Additional links where this topic is being discussed are to be found below. Please let me know in the comments of ones I may be missing:

The Guardian UK

A Developing Story

Rosebell’s Blog

Asim Rafiqui I

Asim Rafiqui II

The Travel Photographer I

The Travel Photographer II

Travel Photographer III

Lightstalkers

Joerg Colberg I

Joerg Colberg II

A. J. Somerset

Scarlett Lion

Journalism.co.uk

Discussion on Jon Sawyer’s Speech at Ethics Conference

More questions on Mr. Vernaschi’s winning WPP photo here and here

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15 Responses to “Open Letter to The Pulitzer Center and Mr. Vernaschi”

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  4. 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.

  5. admin says:

    @John Wong. Thank you for your comments.

    Interestingly, this fiasco seems to have been more or less cleansed from the annals of the Internet. Just a few months ago if you typed Mr. Vernaschi’s name in Google, my post would come up on the first page. Now, if you type an even more specific query “Marco Vernaschi + Vigilante Journalist” you will not find it at all. In addition, all of the comments on the Pulitzer website regarding this matter, of which there were many, have been effaced. This scandal has effectively been swept under the carpet.

    Mr. Vernaschi may go on to have a lucrative career in art photography, as this seems to be the direction he is taking presently. Fine, and who are we to try to stop him? But he far overstepped the boundaries as a photojournalist, indeed his actions were against the law to be precise, and I don’t think he will work in this business again.

    That said, this tragic story should serve as an example of how terribly one can go astray from the moral tenets and ethics by which we are supposed to live and work, and the consequences such actions can have. It also shows how corrupt the gatekeepers of our profession are, evidenced by the fact that the Pulitzer chose to stand by his story and has gone on to remove any trace of public outcry. For shame!

    I can’t help but think of Marie Colvin, who died in Syria yesterday. She was the real deal. We should measure all others by the standards of journalism she upheld, lived and died by, not the kind of staged sensationalism that has tightened its grip on our profession with increasing force.

  6. John Wong says:

    To Mr Vernaschi: Somehow your photography lacks the veracity I equate with true photo journalism, not to mention the stilted captions (facts?) that go with them. Your technique, artistic or creative treatment detracts from the issue rather than to engage your audience with the raw, unadorned truth. I quote an artist I knew who wrote: “The more the technique, the more terrible the fettering.” No amount of technique or staging (modeling & props) will ever replace the instinctive, empathetic eye and engaged heart of a true photo journalist who spontaneously shutters his camera at the often providential, crucial place and moment. Of course, my perception of your photography and your merit as a photo journalist may be biased since you had the body of a murdered 10 year old girl, Margaret Babirye Nankya, dug up just so you could photograph her mutilated body. Some may laud your technique or artistic flair but I certainly found your methods / staging in this case utterly repulsive, not to mention that your version and revision of “facts” on the case was questionable. Your photography and methods of acquiring them would probably be more suited to commercial purposes like advertising rather than to addressing humanistic issues.

  7. admin says:

    UPDATE: Jon Sawyer’s speech at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communications Conference: New Journalism, New Ethics?
    http://untoldstories.pulitzercenter.org/2010/04/bridging-the-gaps-oldmedia-values-in-a-newmedia-world-.html#more

  8. Jake says:

    Jon Sawyer is speaking now at a conference on journalism ethics-he’s addressing the Marco Vernaschi issues extensively. You can watch it live here: http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/session-3/ and I think they’re making a podcast people will be able to download. Updates to come.

  9. John says:

    The suggestion that the opinions of ‘bloggers’ are somehow inferior to those of ‘journalists’ is offensive, the idea that those complaining about Vernaschi’s behaviour are doing so for personal gain is ludicrous.

    If anyone is seeking attention here it is Vernaschi, if anyone is guilty of betraying the highest standards of truth it is the Pulitzer Center.

    Jon Sawyer has some serious questions to answer – his continued support of Vernaschi detracts from the good name of the Pulitzer Center and the work it has done in the past.

  10. Anonymous Photojournalist says:

    There is an easy way to solve this so-called mystery, which I am willing to label without fear of libel – just unwilling to have my name anywhere near this atrocity, thank you – as staged accounts, and that would be what any respectable news organization or outlet would have done at this point, which is to request the full contact sheets to ensure that events unfolded in a “natural sequence.” There are a few other cases in Vernaschi’s work where I wish and hope someone has and will do this to resolve any lingering doubts and reaffirm Vernaschi’s confidence in his own work, if he is to be so confident after breaking Ugandan laws and throwing the threat of legal action at others. Alas, Jon Sawyer and the Pulitzer Center seem utterly unwilling. I hope World Press Photo is not so unwilling.

    As this horrific scandal has unfolded, I ask: if the U.S. military or NATO forces had done similarly with a recently deceased Iraqi or Afghan child, would Marco Vernaschi, the Pulitzer Center, the relatively silent editorial community and the very vocal photojournalistic one not be similarly outraged? I’m confounded that this sort of “visual evidence” is acceptable; it is not., just as staging images is not. Is our first duty not to historical record and then what ever sort of aesthetic components we as photographers can bring to the picture?

  11. Jenny Lynn Walker says:

    The whole issue is increasingly perplexing and unclear. Surely the need to exhume past cases contradicts the essential message of the story itself: that human sacrifice is widespread and growing (up from 5 reported cases in a population of 31 million people 5 years ago)?

    Given all that has emerged, I’m left agreeing with much of what was said in a comment on a connected thread:

    Posted by: Anonymous Photojournalist | April 25, 2010 at 08:54 PM
    —————————————————————–
    This story has done such incredible damage to the Pulitzer Center, photojournalism generally and those of us who practice it honestly and in good faith, that a list of questions, advice and possible explanations come almost immediately to mind:

    1) It is incredulous to believe that a photographer arrives one dark night at the decision to stage a photo AND have a body exhumed. Surely there were many such dark nights before it to prepare and ready the photographer, in this case Marco Vernaschi, to take such steps.

    2) Vagueness, ambiguity, and mixed stories are becoming of those who cannot get theirs straight. The Pulitzer Center appears to have no sense of public relations (nor the photographer) in that if a story needs clarification, further clarification and then yet still more clarification, it’s time to go back and make sure that there are still facts to work with. In other words, repeated statements, appraisals, denials, additional details only obfuscate the truth and credibility.

    3) Lastly, the Pulitzer Center is going to continue to fund such work even though obviously incredible doubt has been cast over the phototojournalist’s working methods, integrity, sense of humanity, and truth-telling abilities? Really?

    Jon, if you care about this organization and the work its mission statement professes to being committed to, I think it is time that not just Marco Vernaschi step aside but you as well. Good luck surviving this with your organization, board of directors and fundraising intact. And if all these things survive the fallout from this inhumane farce, good luck finding photojournalists and others with any integrity, honesty, and decency who may wish to attach their names to the your organization’s mission, given where its credibility stands at present. Overall, there are clearly too many headcases festering in this profession and they may have now found a nest to roost in.

  12. Thanks again for a precise account on the way things has developed. I just don’t get it. The Pulitzer Center’s stand on this grave issue.
    But then again – I have to consider myself to belong to the Lemming species. And we are known just to follow – never to lead. Keep it up, though. It is important.
    Stjerneklar

  13. K. Brown says:

    The story of a photojournalist and his need for personal recognition and admiration that has sadly overshadowed the true tragedy that continues in Uganda. Journalism of this kind in the name of exposing the truth is a dangerous game that can only destroy the hard work and integrity of generations past.
    Hopefully this will cause other “journalists” with the same inclinations to consider the ends do not justify the means.

  14. Again a very well written account of all this mess.

    Unfortunately, and coming from a really curious fellow lemming, I think that there will be more to come… soon…

    Many cheers,

    Armando

  15. lukaeura says:

    Thanks for writing this… As I have written to Anne personally, this post clarifies many questions I had while following this story.
    This matter has to be solved, but I invite everyone not to forget about the real victims of human sacrifice since they are the most important and they are getting a bit lost in this whole mess.

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