During the judging of the recent World Press Awards one thing you can trust is that, on the whole, the judges will pick great pictures. With a hundred thousand or so to chomp through they’d have to be visually illiterate to do anything else.
But can you trust that the work they pick has been produced with the basic elements of fairness and accuracy that most would agree journalism demands?
That trust would depend on the integrity of the World Press to properly investigate photographers where there is evidence the code of conduct (I’m told) they must sign when entering the awards has been broken.
Today duckrabbit (Benjamin Chesterton) is publishing a document that suggests the people running the World Press Awards failed to investigate properly claims that a series of winning pictures were staged.
Remember this photo?
It won the prestigious Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2009 award. Then two months later the photo was stripped of the award and the photographer was banned from the competition for life.
A member of the public wrote to the awards committee stating that they believed the photo was staged and that a tame wolf had been used.
The awards committee did the only thing they could to maintain the integrity of the competition. They called back the judges who took expert advice on the photo. Although it was never 100% proven that the image was a ‘faked’, the judges came to the conclusion that a deception had taken place.
This is what one them had to say (taken from the BBC):
“We disqualified the photographer and banned him for life from entering the competition again, so I think that sends a strong message. This is very sad and I think it might make us more suspicious of entries that are too good to be true,” said Mr Carwardine. But he added that he hoped it would encourage honesty in the competition in the future.
Just a few weeks later Macro Vernaschi won a first prize at the World Press Awards for his work on narco trafficking in Guinea Bissau. This is work that Rabbit (David White) had championed previously on the duckrabbit blog in a post called ‘How to do it‘:
Ok…after looking at mediocre photography day in day out for what seems ages, I was sent an email by Marco Vernaschi. He’s had a lot of exposure recently, and rightly so. His work is of a rare quality. He is technically totally in control, aesthetically he’s bang on and the stories he covers are epic. He deserves his coverage. If you are learning (aren’t we all?) then take a look at Marco’s work. You can look at it through the Pulitzer centre or on his site.
Marco Vernaschi is a extremely talented photographer but on the the presentation of this story I disagreed with Rabbit.
To me the photos are charged with racial stereotypes of black people and in particular Africans.
Black, poor, criminal, guns, corruption, prostitutes, drug addicts, dealers, gangs, sexually promiscuous, victims of the West.
It’s disappointing but no surprise that so many photo editors loved such aesthetically brilliant work, but there were questions they should have been asking, not least the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting who have consistently funded Vernaschi’s projects in Africa.
Not everyone was asleep. Jørn Stjerneklar’s professional instinct, based on years of working in ‘the dark continent’, told him many of the photos were ‘too good to be true’.
When he started to dig deeper he found a story he believed was riddled with inaccuracy and had more in common with the genre of docu-drama then investigative journalism.
After hearing Vernaschi talk Stjerneklar became convinced that a number of photos that won the World Press ‘News’ category were staged, writing so in the blog post, ‘To Stage Or Not To Stage‘. Last year he wrote to World Press asking them to investigate.
The World Press issued Stjerneklar with a statement:
“Marco Vernaschi provided us the the RAW files of his story. Our experts carefully assessed the files and did not find any irregularities conflicting with the rules of the World Press Photo Contest. We are satisfied and see no reason to take further action regarding the prizewinning story of Marco Vernaschi. I hope I have informed you sufficiently on this matter”.
This response would be like the judges of the wildlife competition responding to the allegations that the photo of the wolf had been staged by stating they they had investigated the RAW file and were satisfied that it was a wolf.
Here are three possible reasons for World Press’ reponse:
Not deterred by the World Press’s failure to investigate his claims Stjerneklar and his partner dug Helle Maj dug deeper. The document they produced is a thought provoking deconstruction of Vernaschi’s work.
The document is ‘speculations, assumptions and conspiracy theories‘ and ‘All I can say is that this document says more about the people who wrote it than about me, or my work.’
I tried to find out from Vernaschi by email exactly what it says about Stjerneklar who is a hugely respected and senior journalist?
‘If you have something specific to say about the people who wrote it, that in someway discredits what they wrote, then please say so and I will not publish the text.
Beyond that this has been your response to what is written
‘speculations, assumptions and conspiracy theories’.
You are right there are some speculation and assumptions, made from a professional perspective and the document raises questions. But it also deals in very many specifics.’
I received no further response.
Vernaschi, and his champions at World Press and the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, have a problem. Stjerneklar is very specific in his allegations. Vernaschi should have no problem in shooting them down. He can easily prove that Stjerneklar is wrong. Instead he personally attacks and issues repeated legal threats against those who question his working methods but fails to defend his work.
Why should he?
Of course he has a right to retain a dignified silence in this matter but do you know of any professional journalist who would not clear their name if a fellow respected professional was alleging that the presentation of their work might be fraudulent?
Stjerneklar provides evidence that Vernaschi’s journalism is built on shifting sands. Niether the World Press, Vernaschi or the Pulitzer centre have been able to offer a credible defense.
At the BBC this matter would have been cleared up swiftly through the complaints process, but no such transparent procedure exists at the World Press or The Pulitzer Centre.
I have been involved with the complaints procedure at the BBC. In this instance they would simply ask the photographer to prove they had only taken two or three photos of the shooting, as Vernaschi claims, by providing them with the shots taken before and after. The numbers of those shots, as recorded by the camera, would tell them exactly how many photos had been taken in-between, during the ‘shooting’ and whether Vernaschi’s version of events is credible. If the photographer could not provide that evidence then they would have to report this back to the complainant (this does not mean of course that they faked the shots, just lied about the number taken). If they could provide that evidence then the complaint would be dismissed with the evidence presented back to the complainant.
Jon Sawyer, Director of The Pulitzer Centre On Crisis Reporting, stands by the work:
‘We have considered all available evidence and discussed the situation in detail with Mr. Vernaschi. We remain convinced of the the integrity of the photos.’
Sawyer fails to address any of the specific points in the document which I forwarded to him. I am surprised that the Pulitzer Centre doesn’t consider the consistent and accurate captioning of photographs to be fundamental to the integrity of the work on show. (see how Vernaschi offers different versions of the same event in the document below)
I also can’t help wondering what Sawyer means by ‘all available evidence’? If he has seen the photos before and after the shooting then he can categorically say that Vernaschi did only take two or three photos of the shooting. End of story. The fact that he does not state this suggests to me that he has not seen the photos.
I can only come to the conclusion that there are some basic values of ‘news’ that Vernaschi, the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, the World Press Awards, and a number of hugely respected photo editors and awards committees seem to think are disposable if the aesthetic of the picture is good enough. That’s a dangerous game that can only further erode trust in the industry.
On the upside it’s clearer to me how to teach my students the best way to win a World Press Award. It seems some sections of the industry have higher standards regarding the ethics of shootings animals then they do about photographing ‘Africans’.
Don’t expect Vernaschi to be picking up awards for wildlife photography any time soon.
By Helle Maj and Jørn Stjerneklar, Mayday Press, 11th of May 2010.
1. PICTURE NO. 1: THE EXECUTION.
First we have looked into two pictures taken by Marco Vernaschi of an execution in Guinea-Bissau. The pictures with EXIF-files can be seen on:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pulitzercenter/3983716181/meta and http://www.flickr.com/photos/pulitzercenter/3984301862/meta
Marco Vernaschi´s explanation on Pulitzer´s website of what happended:
1. “I was in my room, ready to sleep, when my phone rings, a few minutes before midnight. “Marco! You should come now. There’s something I promised to show you… remember? Go to the airport, in the parking lot. You will find my friends there in half an hour… and don’t forget your camera!”
I don’t know what to do, I’m freaking scared and I don’t know what I’m about to see. I’m not sure accepting the invitation is wise but it could be maybe dangerous not to. A waltz of doubts and theories starts to dance in my mind, but after half an hour I’m at the airport. When I arrive, nobody is there. I lock my car, wait for a few minutes, and then a four-wheel-drive arrives. They approach my car and, from the window, a guy tells me to jump on the front seat. Omar is not in the car but I recognize the guy who drives. I don’t know his name and I never talked with him before, but he’s always around at the parties.
When I get in the car I see there are three other guys in the back seat. The one in the middle is blindfolded with the two guys at his sides holding a rifle each. One of them wears a SWAT hood, holding a pistol against the hostage”.
2. “That’s way too much for me; I want to leave. But I can’t. I wish I was in a movie and I feel ridiculous with my cameras. We drive toward Quinhamel, a little village 30 minutes from Bissau, when the car suddenly takes a secondary road, surrounded by cashew trees. Nobody in the car say a single word. I smoke two cigarettes. In a few minutes the car finally stops. The three guys get off, with their hostage.” If you want to take pictures, do it. Just make sure not to take my face… I’ll check your camera later”. The driver seemed to be extremely relaxed.
Location of the shot:
Were these pictures taken in the town of Bissau or near the village of Quinhamel? Vernaschi doesn´t seem sure:
How long did MV have to take his pictures?
Marco Vernaschi has stated several times that the situation was tense.
So what happened to the man about to be executed?
Take your pick:
What did Vernaschi think about the situation?
How did Marco Vernaschi get his contacts to the drug lords?
What time did Marco shoot these pictures?
Our notes: So Vernaschi would be at the scene at around 1 to 1.10 am. This corresponds with his EXIF-files, which shows his two pictures are taken at 1.15 am and 1.26 am. People have asked, if his cameras are set on local time. We have two other pictures from another day, which confirm that his two cameras indeed is on Guinea-Bissau time.
Back to the bush scene: Marco Vernaschi would then stay at least 34 minutes to one and a half hour + 4 minutes before leaving at 2 or 3 am. The question is: Why didn’t he and the gangsters just leave at 1.26? What happened after?
Marco Vernaschi has at least 44 minutes, maybe 1 hour 34 minutes to take pictures. With the rate he normally shoots it seems strange that he only takes “two or three pictures” considering he was invited on this trip and told to bring his camera(s). Marco Vernaschi has not published any more pictures from February 26 or pictures taken February 27 on the web. His next pictures after the dramatic scene in the bush (or outskirts of Bissau) is from February 28. Between the bush scene (Feb. 26) and the next published pictures (of three prostitutes Feb. 28) he shoots 387 pictures just with one of his cameras. It would be interesting to see those pictures. There must be one or two good shots out of 387 made?
On February the 28th he spends 1 hour 23 minutes in a room with three prostitutes. In a controlled environment he manages to shoot at least 128 pictures with one camera. Why so few pictures from the bush? Which is in a controlled environment as well. One of the gangsters clearly tells him, according to Marco Vernaschi himself on Pulitzer’s website: .“If you want to take pictures, do it. Just make sure not to take my face… I’ll check your camera later”.
Why did he publish these captions and pictures?
If you work as a journalist it must be imperative to know the truth – before you publish your story as the “truth”. Excerpts from Journalisten:
‘But he himself is in doubt if the narco gang themselves has arranged the whole situation, and that the victim even is a part of the theatre.’
“I have asked myself that question many times and I don’t have an answer. The guy was left in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning and he seemed very scared. That convinced me, that it was not just done to impress me” Marco Vernaschi explains.’
Why does Marco Vernaschi not use all the tools of our profession and his own time to verify the story before he uses captions like “a score is settled between drug dealers”? He has doubts, he says. If you doubt – you investigate.
There are two pictures of the execution available on the Internet.
Picture no. 1 (winning picture at WPP): Taken on the 26th of Feb. 2009 at 1.15.55 am.
Picture no. 2: (where MV in the line of fire): Taken on 26th of Feb 2009 at 1.26.39
There are 11 minutes between the two shots.
Quoting Marco Vernaschi again from Journalisten: “The situation took only a few seconds”.
Are These Photos Staged?
Notes from photographer Jørn Stjerneklar: I have worked in Africa for more than 30 years – over 20 of those years I have actually lived here. I have never experienced to be able to drive out from an airport (except in SA and Namibia) without having to face a police checkpoint. For countries in war, near war, or at peace, the story is the same. You will have to face the police (or army). In Osvaldo Vieira Airport there’s a checkpoint. So how do you get past that checkpoint with a blindfolded man in the middle of the backseat and two armed men at either side? This is how it looks when Marco Vernaschi enters the car in the airport according to himself:
“When I get in the car I see there are three other guys in the back seat. The one in the middle is blindfolded with the two guys at his sides holding a rifle each. One of them wears a SWAT hood, holding a pistol against the hostage”.
Next is the trip of 30-40 minutes drive into the bush after midnight. In most countries here on the continent, at least South of Sahara, you will have either police or army checkpoints with a regular intervals. The checkpoints normally works as extortion places and supports tens of thousand families in Africa. You can read an account of driving in Guinea-Bissau here:
From my humble experience during the 30 years of working at the continent Marco Vernaschi would have met 2-3 checkpoints on his route. And the same coming back. With two armed men and a blindfolded guy going out of town there would have been a lot of explanation to do at these checkpoints. But not according to Vernaschi’s story. No roadblocks, no checkpoints. I don’t find it strange – I find it unbelievable. Nothing less.
MV’s caption: “The team of soldiers who executed the President, photographed seven hours after they accomplished their task, in the Military Headquarters in Bissau”.
2009:03:02 12:49:38 2009:03:02 12:48:41
These two pictures linked above confirm that Marco Vernaschi’s cameras are set on local Bissau time. The President was in fact killed seven hours before they are taken, around five in the morning.
PICTURE NO. 2: THE DEAD PRESIDENTS CHAIR
This picture can be seen on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pulitzercenter/3983717739/meta
The EXIF-file for this pictures shows it was taken on the 3rd of March at 16.37.54
Who took Marco Vernaschi to the president´s house?
What was looted in the presidents house?
Question to the above: Look at this picture:
It was taken by photographer Tiago Petinga/Lusa two days after Marco Vernaschi was in the president’s bedroom. Did somebody put the presidents clothes back into his bedroom?
Why is the photo of the presidents chair interesting?
Other people have taken pictures in the house on that day – and the chairs, the bullet proof vest and the machete are not at the locations where they are, when Marco Vernaschi takes his picture.
You can read more about this on:
http://www.maydaypress.com/blog/page9_files/024fe1f5a1638b898aee32fcbb1aa95d-1.html and on: http://www.maydaypress.com/blog/page9_files/46a821e4d73080f1b11bf7d9afac7486-2.html
We have e-mailed Antonio Aly Silva who took a picture from the dining room/kitchen nine minutes before MV took his picture. He has not replied to us. Here is his picture:
2009:03:03 16:28:27 Nine (9) minutes before Marco Vernaschi enters the same room. Photo: Antonio Aly Silva.
Marco Vernaschi says at the Pulitzer Center’s website: “He led me to the kitchen first, to show me where Nino Vieira was executed. (A cousin? Who? Did he have a name?)
We then e-mailed Candida Pinto, a portuguise tv-journalist who were in the presidents house on the same day as Marco Vernaschi (see: http://videos.sapo.pt/ovcUWWlziuYvBblYJrB9 sent on the 3rd of March 2009 at 20.32.).
Via Facebook she wrote back:
“I was in the Nino Vieira’s house in the middle afternoon, the day after is (his) dead. The place was show me by his nephew. We haven’t touch anything, but there’s nobody protecting the place, the proofs of murder. Everybody could go inside…”
Later: “Hi Helle,
Tomorrow I’ll talk with him (her camera man). I think it was about 4 pm, but I want to be sure.
all the best,
Later: “It was the chaos. I was very surprise cause I could get inside the house without problems.
That day, when I arrived in Bissau, think that it will be impossible get inside the house, that will be police around, taking care of the proofs, something like that…It was a president’s murder…!
But was the opposite. It seams that everybody could get inside, take something, move things inside, nobody was responsable for nothing. So, the place could change…
Sorry, that’s what I can tell you, that’s what happened with me”.
Picture NO. 3 -FROM THE PRESIDENTS BEDROOM
This picture can be seen at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pulitzercenter/3983717835/meta/in/set-72157622522036974
It is a photo showing a picture of the president and some business cards around it and on top of it.
Marco Vernaschi has given this caption to Süddeutsche Zeitung: . “I found a portrait of the president and his wife, along with their business cards, on the nightstand in President Vieira’s bedroom”.
This is another picture taken from the Internet. We are still trying to find out who took it and when it was taken.
First problem: The wife is not on the picture. Incorrect caption my MV.
Second problem: MV’s picture must be staged. Everything is placed too perfect.
Third problem: This picture was apparently sent to the PGB Award. But now it is missing from their archives.
If you look at the PGBs page and download the awards you will see Marco Vernaschi won 1st price for his story about Guinea-Bissau. He submitted 15 pictures – but picture no. 5 is not there anymore.
At Vernaschi´s homepage www.marcovernaschi.com the picture is there. Here it is titled PGB_award (4).jpg. Why was the picture withdrawn? We are still waiting from an answer from Sweden/PGB.
PICTURE NO. 4 – A PORTRAIT FROM 1998…
This picture is part of the winning series in the World Press Photo news story category. It shows a portrait of a soldier. Vernaschi´s caption is:
“A soldier killed in Guinea-Bissau’s 1998 civil war”
Question: Who is this man? Why is the picture winning in a news category?
PICTURE NO. 5 – YOUNG MAN IN FRONT OF HUMMER
Question: Is this a news picture? Or is it a staged photo?
Marco Vernaschi excels in pictures of prostitutes. In the pictures he has put out on various websites with “clients” in the photos, you can clearly identify the ladies, but not in one picture you can identify the white man (model?). Why is that?
‘Here’s the photo on the homepage of his website. It doesn’t tell me anything about the world or the people in the image, it just makes me think why on earth did that dude and those two women let him stand above him while they were having a sexual encounter? And what did Marco say to get them to agree to this?”
Scarlett Lion on her blog.
Read Scarlett Lion’s blog here: http://www.scarlettlion.com/2010/04/why-digging-up-dead-bodies-and-photographing-them-is-a-bad-idea.html
WHAT MARCO VERNASCHI SAYS ABOUT PHOTOJOURNALISM:
“I also believe that if you want to tell about the madness and tragedy that surround the drug world you must in some way get your hands dirty: there is no way to dig into the mud and stay clean. So it was clear since the beginning that I needed to establish a strong connection with my characters. Developing this story meant that I had to live inside a real nightmare. The fear and tension stay with me, but I believe this is an important story to share with the world”.” http://www.lensculture.com/vernaschi.html?thisPic=3
‘Like a musician change the melody and mood of a sad to a happy song, you have to as a photographer to express the visual soul in your story. This is the key to making sensitive images. ”
“Thank God photojournalism has been recognized in recent years as an art form and as a commercial product with a much wider market…” http://www.argraescuela.org.ar/new/vernaschi.php
Post-production is a necessary complement of modern photography. Without adequate post-production you cannot be talking about a finished image. It would be like cooking without the dough to bake a cake…. http://ziczac.it/a/leggi/06a40e1737053c60df6707fcc9941f5e/
UNTOLD STORIES AND NEWS?
Marco Vernaschi’s photojournalism from Guinea-Bissau has been published on Pulitzer Center’s website as an “Untold Story”. In an interview with Associazione Culturalle Fotografica Collecttivo WSP on February 26th 2010 Marco Vernaschi confirms that Guinea-Bissau being Africa’s First Narco State is an untold story.
Marco Vernaschi says: “The work that won the WPP has made noise for two reasons: cocaine trafficking in Africa has never been documented before….”
A quick Google search revealed that the story has been published worldwide for years before Marco Vernaschi went to Bissau.
In Newsweek, Aug 29, 2005:
West Africa: The New ‘Drug Triangle’
Cocaine Now Makes A Detour On The Way To Europe.
By Eric Pape | NEWSWEEK
Reuters, 26 Oct 2006:
Suspects freed in Guinea-Bissau’s biggest drug case
LA TIMES, Mar 14, 2007:
A drug’s worrisome detour; Much of Europe’s cocaine now arrives via West Africa, where the law means little.
Sebastian Rotella; Chris Kraul
Telegraph.co.uk, 10 Jun 2007:
The African gateway for UK cocaine
By Colin Freeman in Bissau
See more at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1554135/The-African-gateway-for-UK-cocaine.html
Time.com, Jun 27, 2007:
By VIVIENNE WALT / Bissau Wednesday, Jun. 27, 2007
See at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1637719,00.html
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1637719,00.html#ixzz0nbbR0W9n
BBC: Monday, 9 July 2007, 00:31 GMT 01:31 UK
Africa – new front in drugs war
By Joseph Winter
BBC News website
How can you hope to battle organised, rich and ruthless international drugs gangs when there is not even a proper prison in the country?
See more: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6274590.stm
The Independent.co.uk, 18 July 2007:
Drug barons turn Bissau into Africa’s first narco-state
By Jonathan Miller in Bissau
This article ends with this: The emergence of the cocaine trade in west Africa is the subject of an exclusive report for Channel 4 News, to be broadcast tonight at 7pm
See at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/drug-barons-turn-bissau-into-africas-first-narcostate-457690.html
Guardian, Sunday 9 March 2008:
How a tiny West African country became the world’s first narco state
It is the world’s fifth poorest nation with no prisons and few police. Now this small west African failed state has been targeted by Colombian drug cartels, turning it into a transit hub for the cocaine trade out of Latin America and into Europe. Grant Ferrett and Ed Vulliamy tell the remarkable story of how the cocaine cavalry arrived three years ago and transformed the life of Guinea-Bissau
• Ed Vulliamy
See more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/09/drugstrade
Washington Post, Sunday, May 25, 2008:
Route of Evil
How a Tiny West African Nation Became a Key Smuggling Hub For Colombian Cocaine, and the Price It Is Paying
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
QUINHAMEL, Guinea-Bissau — Filipe Dju sat grim-faced on the tangled roots of a mangrove tree, a padlocked chain around his ankle tethering him to four other recovering cocaine addicts.
See more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/24/AR2008052401676.html
And see Kevin Sullivan´s video on: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2008/05/23/VI2008052302949.html?sid=ST2008052401733
This is just headlines from major news organisations in English from August 2005 up to May 2008 – eight months before Marco Vernaschi starts to work in Guinea-Bissau. Most of these stories has documented the information Marco Vernaschi presents as “untold and new”. All these stories are more precise and accurate, with numbers, interviews, photographs and with informing captions.
You can find much more about this untold story published in Portuguese and other languages.
Caption writing for beginners:
The exact format for captions vary from publication to publication, but a basic photo captions should:
• Clearly identify the people and location that appear in the photo. Professional titles should be included as well as the formal name of the location.
SPELL NAMES CORRECTLY (check against the spellings in the article if necessary) For photographs of more than one person, identifications typically go from left to right. In the case of large groups, identifications of only notable people may be required and sometimes no I.D.s are required at all. Your publication should establish a standard for its photographers.
• Include the date and day the photograph was taken. This is essential information for a news publication. The more current a photo is the better. If an archive photograph or photograph taken prior to the event being illustrated is used, the caption should make it clear that it is a “file photo.”
• Provide some context or background to the reader so he or she can understand the news value of the photograph. A sentence or two is usually sufficient.
• Photo captions should be written in complete sentences and in the present tense. The present tense gives the image a sense of immediacy. It does not always logical to write the entire caption in the present tense. Often the first sentence is written in the present tense and following sentences are not.
• Be brief. Most captions are one or two short, declarative sentences. Some may extent to a third sentence if complex contextual information is needed to explain the image completely.
The basics to a photo caption:
Photojournalism is a documentation. We need to know who is in the photo, be it a alias or their real name. When there are 5 or more people in a photo, listing everyones name is not a necessity. You can go with a broad label, such as Students of College/University or Anti-war protesters Even if there are no people in the photo what ever the important subject is should be listed.
The activity going on in the photo should also be written down, as it may not always be obvious what is going on, or what said activity is called.
The location: it’s not always clear where the subject is, this blurb should very detailed. Even to the point of redundancy.
Simply the date, different publications require different formats it’s good practice to try and include the day of the week but its not critical.
If it is a holiday the holiday can be added: New Year’s Eve. Sunday, December 31, 2006.
Basically why someone is doing what they are doing. This can also include some background information on what’s being covered a little extra details, this is usually included in whets published below a photo in a magazine or newspaper.