Faking it – how to win a World Press Award but get banned from a wildlife comp for life

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:

  1. Stjerneklar is a misguided troublemaker whose allegations do not deserve investigation
  2. The  people at The World Press are journalistically illiterate
  3. They don’t want to ask questions that might inevitably lead to them taking action against a photographer whose work has been championed by so many in the industry

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.

Venaschi’s defense?

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.


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:

  1. MVs caption to Suddeutche Zeitung: ‘We drove to the outskirts of town ( Bissau); it was dark.’
  2. The Danish magazine Journalisten: ‘The party drives to the village Quinhamel, located 30-40 minutes drive from Bissau. The driver stops before reaching the village, and the gang pull the victim out’
  3. MV on Pulitzers website: ‘We drive toward Quinhamel, a little village 30 minutes from Bissau’.
  4. MV in his caption to World Press Photo: No location given.

How long did MV have to take his pictures?

Marco Vernaschi has stated several times that the situation was tense.

  1. Marco Vernaschi to Journalisten (Danish magazine, www.journalisten.dk): “I first discovered that I was in a dangerous situation later when I opened the picture on my computer. The situation took only a few seconds and I was far from calm or analytical enough to realize that I was close to the firing line”, he explains.
  2. Marco Venashi on Pulitzer Gateway: ‘I get out of the car, with caution. I shoot two or three pictures before they force the hostage on the knees. They point a gun to his head and after more threats they kick him to the ground. The man is shaking’

So what happened to the man about to be executed?

Take your pick:

  1. On Vernaschi’s homepage: ‘In this picture, an account is settled between drug dealers.’ (guess it means he was killed?).
  2. MV to the Danish Magazine Journalisten: “The man was abandoned in the wilderness at 03.00 in the morning”.
  3. Caption to WPP: ‘A score between small drug dealers is settled. In the end, the captive was abandoned, but not killed’.
  4. On Pulitzer Gateway: ‘The driver suddenly says we must go, so we get into the car. The hostage is left in the middle of nowhere, at 2 in the morning and far from Bissau. But at least he’s alive’.
  5. MVs caption to Lens Culture: ‘Local drug traffickers have successfully organized a strong criminal network in Bissau. Over the last two years, abductions, murders and threats have gradually became normal practice. In this picture, an account is settled between drug dealers.’
  6. To Suddeutche Zeitung: ‘They acted like they were going to shoot their captive to death. However, they eventually sent him back unharmed’
  7. To Frontline World: ‘They left this poor guy in the middle of the border.’

What did Vernaschi think about the situation?

  1. In the Danish magazine Journalisten: ‘Shortly after the gang leaves the victim unharmed and drives back to Bissau with Marco, who did not ask questions along the route back.’
  2. To Journalisten: ‘In a corner of my brain, I was always confident that they would not kill him,’ says Marco Vernaschi.
  3. To Frontline World: ‘I felt they would have killed him.’
  4. See video on: http://www.pulitzercenter.org/openitemdropcol.cfm?id=1643
  5. To Pulitzer Gateway: (one of the gangsters in the car says):“You knew we wouldn’t have killed him, right? This guy talked too much… he should pay more attention. The next time he could have serious troubles”. I still don’t know why Omar allowed me to photograph this. He probably wanted to send me a message or perhaps just show his power. It is hard to say, but I’m from another world and like Omar told me once, this is Africa.’

How did Marco Vernaschi get his contacts to the drug lords?

  1. In Journalisten MV says: ‘When I arrived, I immediately contacted Interpol and the local police and told them that I wanted to infiltrate a network of drug couriers. They gave me several useful information and names.’
  2. Marco Vernaschi’s caption to Pulitzer on the photo of a gangster in front of a Hummer: ‘A policeman laid a rusty revolver on the table for me at his office. I’ll need it. How did I end up here? Informants had helped me infiltrate a smuggling ring’.
  3. Marco to VQR: ‘I asked a former journalist who had been a correspondent for a Portuguese magazine to show me where Bissau’s drug lords lived. We met at night, in front of my hotel, and went for a ride through the darkness’.

What time did Marco shoot these pictures?

  1. On Pulitzergateway.org: ‘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”.
  2. To the Danish magazine Journalisten: “The guy was abandoned in the middle of the wilderness at 03.00 in the morning, and he seemed very scared”.
  3. To Pulitzer’s website: “The hostage is left in the middle of nowhere, at 2 in the morning and far from Bissau”.

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?

  1. In Journalisten: Marco Vernaschi denies that he has arranged the scene. “I am surprised about the skepticism, and it is not nice to have sown doubts about my work. Especially not after having exposed myself to these situations”, explains Marco Vernaschi
  2. Nelson Mandela’s former bodyguard, Ib Nordentoft Andersen, has seen the pictures. To the Danish magazine Journalisten he says: “In Africa in general and especially among gangsters life has no value. To bring a man into the bush just to show off and then not kill him is not believable”.

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.

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?

  1. Marco to Süddeutsche Zeitung: .”The massacre happened in the kitchen. The machete lies on the blood-smeared tiles; the bullet casing is on the left chair; the president’s bulletproof vest on the right one. He had been forced to remove it before his execution. Later, the perpetrators that led me here were also killed”.
  2. Marco to VQR: ”The next day, I convinced one of Vieira’s cousins to let me into the president’s house. He led me to the kitchen, to show me where Nino Vieira was executed”.
  3. Marco’s caption to World Press Photo: ‘The next day, I managed to visit the president’s house with my camera. One of his several cousins gives me a tour. He led me to the kitchen first, to show me where Nino Vieira was executed. The blood was all over the room. The machete was still on the floor and the bulletproof vest he always wore was on the chair where his wife sat during the questioning. All around there were hundreds of bullets from AK-47 and machine guns. The soldiers looted and destroyed the house. They took everything they could, including clothes and food’.

What was looted in the presidents house?

  1. Marco in his caption to WPP: “The soldiers looted and destroyed the house. They took everything they could, including clothes and food”.
  2. Caption to Lens Culture: ”Minutes after the assassination of President Vieira, the soldiers looted his home. They stole everything they could: his satellite phone, video sets, clothes and even food. The commandos rummaged through all of the drawers in his bedroom to steal personal documents and family pictures, and ended by destroying the house with machine gun shots”.

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”.


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.


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?


This picture is also part of the WWP-award. It is an unidentified man that Mr. Vernaschi has asked to stand in front of a Hummer with a gun in his belt?

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


“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/


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:
Cocaine Country
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.

Appendix A.
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.
From http://www.ijnet.org/ijnet/training_materials/writing_photo_captions

Appendix B.

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.

From: http://news.deviantart.com/article/24929/

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (32 Comments)

  1. JonathanJK says:

    Wow, that is a lot of effort. I hope we find out what actually happened.

    • duckrabbit says:

      I wouldn’t hold my breath. It would be easy for Pulitzer or World Press to establish and comment on at least the most important facts. You have to decide why they choose not to.

  2. I don’t have the expertise to comment on whether or not the photos were staged. But at the very least Vernaschi has, once again, created artfully crafted photos that embody a series of racist cliches about Africa. As is the case with his work from Uganda, the photos tell us much more about the photographer (and about the people who hand out prizes and fellowships) than about the subject.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Absolutely agree with you John. Its interesting how its those of us who have lived and worked in Africa are so disturbed by this kind of presentation.

      • Right. Far from challenging conventional wisdom about Africa, the murkiness and obscurity of so many of Vernaschi’s photos (the blur, the inky shadows) reinforce it. It confirms for many (not all) non-African viewers what they think they already know about the continent — that it’s dark, dangerous, violent, primitive, and ultimately knowable.

        It’s troubling that this is what wins awards and fellowships. I recognize that these photos win prizes in part because they’re fashionable. Vernaschi has a distinctive eye (one which will undoubtedly spawn many imitators and acolytes). But it seems to me that these photos are also rewarded precisely because they confirm what judges want to believe about Africa.

  3. Stan B. says:

    It’s pretty amazing how World Press can dismiss a possible hoax simply by perusing someone’s RAW files. And I can’t help but see the analogy between this and… Le Tour de France. Doping allegations were rife for years, but their expert committee assured the public that their testing procedures were foolproof- until it was finally and overwhelmingly made apparent that they were anything but.

    I can’t vouch for the veracity of Mr. Vernaschi’s work either way, but one thing is most definitely clear- World Press adamantly remains in the denial stage when it comes to the effectiveness of their investigative process.

  4. Interesting read, It would be good to see some positive stories come out of Africa. One of my peers at University shot a project in South Africa before the world cup, of a team made up partially of some ex – prisoners and drug addicts. I asked what the person in the photograph had done but he did not know nor whether he was addicted to drugs or had been in prison. I was quite appaled that he had told this story whilst showing the photograph and lead us to believe he was something when he had no proof nor had asked him if he was either of these things. With Africa it seems we are always quick to believe the worst.

  5. Sojournposse says:

    Thank you for this post and your research. Since the debate about the recent WPP win, I have wondered a lot about the use of the word “Press” in World Press Photo.

    It’s hard to accept winning photos that tell partial truth or amplify chosen agendas. WPP and Pulitzer are important awards, but I feel they are in danger of becoming “travelling freak circus” if these questions are not addressed properly.

    At this point, I am more inclined to go for No.2 – “The people at The World Press are journalistically illiterate.” Although I feel No.3 is more closer to the mark, “They don’t want to ask questions that might inevitably lead to them taking action against a photographer whose work has been championed by so many in the industry”.

    It’s not wrong selecting a winning image based on the strength of its aesthetic values. After all, a winning image has to successfully support the emotion of the story. However it is a problem when the photograph cannot be read or explained clearly within journalism context. Because it misleads the public.

    To be fair, one WPP 2009 win I like is the contaminated orange story by Fang Qianhua. Exposed an important story about cadmium contamination in China. But the press didn’t make much fuss, because stories about poisoned fruits aren’t sexy enough.

    ZH, creative director Sojournposse

  6. a clear and convincing argument here, well written with good detail.
    Something is going on here, I don’t think these competition boards want you delving into their cases but you should. I hope this sparks something and you get an answer, good job.

  7. JonathanJK says:

    I forgot to say thank you in my original post. That’s what I meant when I said that’s a lot of effort. You’ve gone into a great amount of detail to shed light on something that would normally pass the most of us by and in the process lift some of the veneer off the WPP judging process.

    With that said, your report has highlighted a second issue, one of accurate represention in Africa and it’s so easy for me to forget. But it made me think about the last time I saw a positive journalist story coming out of Africa. I can’t think of one sadly.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      its hard to blame the judges. It would not be my pick of stories for all the points John Edwin Mason makes. What is really worrying if how poor World Press’s response was when asked to investigate. Also the Pulitzer Centre’s response. I think that they would both benefit from having some transparent complaints procedure.

      I feel sorry for all the people who spent hours preparing their photos for this award. They may feel cheated.

  8. Emmy says:

    wow, thanks for this post, it is so rare.

    It reminds me of when i worked as a fixer for foreign photographers who came to South Africa before the world cup. I was appalled by their ignorance, prejudices, and disrespect. They knew nothing about the country (sorry when you haven’t bothered looking up the name of the party in power of the country you are visiting, I’m afraid you are ignorant), and literally asked to prepare topics that were ultimately clichés. So they had already decided to stage their stories before landing in the country. It took a lot of time to convince them that South Africa is more than rape, crime, and HIV. These are obviously valid topics to work on, they reflect a rough reality. But when you are being asked to “cast” someone according to his/her colour or gender (ie: “please make sure it is a black person and a woman”)it obviously provides a very skew version of the reality and victimize people who don’t need to be condemned to a second death, that of their identity.

    Once the shoot is done, the photographers sometimes go as far as assuming they don’t need a written authorization of the people who were photographed: “ah, come on, they live in a shack, they dont have internet, it’s not like they gonna sue me”.

    This is, for me, condemning a country to remain a cliché, and to sentence a people to be second zone citizens for the rest of their life. This is the ultimate insult from photographers with superior complex. it is also providing enormous space for photographers to alter the reality of events they supposedly witnessed.

    These are obviously photojournalists that participate in conveying post colonial stereotypes. I believe, maybe naively, they are still professionals who have work ethics. But I imagine that the eagerness to win awards, and the bad health of the photo industry doesn’t help.

  9. Sojournposse says:

    Breaking clichés – Do you know about that an important photography work on Congo were discussed by a group of opinion leading designers as inspirational at London Design Festival?

    It was ‘Gentlemen of Bacongo’ by photographer Danile Tamagni, who did a good job presenting alternative images on Congo. The book was presented and discussed amongst designers and art directors at London Design Festival in 2009, organised by Nissan Design Europe. Trolley Book’s publisher Gigi Giannuzzi told us the book inspired Sir Paul Smith’s collection http://www.trolleybooks.com/bookSingle.php?bookId=118

    The work also informed us something completely alien to us – that the Congolese have great aesthetic taste.

    My question to photojournalists, can you create a body of work that makes the creatives tick – and inspire them to create something innovative? Can you use your photography to inform designers and culture producers to create something useful to help the Africans, Asians etc?

    It’s all fair to criticise, lament and expose stories, but essentially a civilisation is build by making useful things.

    London Design Festival is Sojournposse’s partner. So any photography publishers like to talk about this with us, please drop me a line. Thanks, ZH

  10. JonathanJK says:

    My sub-concious has been working away on positive African representation stories. It came up with Pieter Hugo who did Hyena men.

    • Jonathan,

      The relative scarcity of positive photo stories from Africa is only part of the problem. Equally important is the question of how one covers the other side of things — crime, corruption, war, etc.

      Pieter Hugo is not an example I would chose for “positive African representation.” His photos of the hyena men indulge in a sort of exoticizing and othering that is quite 19th century in its feel and impact.

      It would be much more useful to point to people like (to mention just a few South Africans) Zwelethu Mthethwa (his entire body of work), Jodi Bieber’s Soweto series, Musa Nxumalo’s Jo’burg hipsters, Zanele Muholi’s explorations of lesbian identity, and Oupa Nkosi’s Black Diamonds series. (Not to mention David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng, George Hallett, Paul Weinberg…. The list from South Africa alone goes on and on. Multiply this list several times for the continent as a whole.)

      While it would be wrong to call all of this photography “positive,” it does uniformly escape the formulaic and cliched. Non-Africans working in the same vein would include Marcus Bleasdale (see his photo essay on an orchestra in Kinshasa) and Joan Bardelleti (his epic study of Africa’s middle classes)

      But, as I mentioned, it’s just as important to look at the ways in which negative stories are shot and written. The problem with Vernaschi’s photos from Guinea Bissau is not that they’re about crime and corruption or that they depict people who have done evil things. This story must certainly be covered.

      The problem, instead, is with the way Vernaschi chose to make his photos. Often dark, blurred, and obscure, they reinforce racist notions that Africa and African are inherently dangerous, primitive, and, as I said in an earlier comment, ultimately unknowable. He did the same thing in his Uganda series.

      It seems to me that, at heart, Vernaschi really isn’t interested in doing what journalists do — imparting information about the world.

      I’ve made Vernaschi my whipping boy, here. But anyone who spends time looking at contemporary photojournalism/documentary photography/reportage knows that he’s by no means the only offender.

      • duckrabbit says:

        ‘The problem with Vernaschi’s photos from Guinea Bissau is not that they’re about crime and corruption or that they depict people who have done evil things. This story must certainly be covered.

        The problem, instead, is with the way Vernaschi chose to make his photos. Often dark, blurred, and obscure, they reinforce racist notions that Africa and African are inherently dangerous, primitive, and, as I said in an earlier comment, ultimately unknowable. He did the same thing in his Uganda series.’

        This is what so enrages and upsets people who have lived in different parts of Africa. I recently spoke quite openly about how when I went to live in Ethiopia I had an essentially racist mentality. It was me that needed to change and I did.

        That deeply buried mentality, that ‘Aficans’ are somehow less capable then ‘us’, is reinforced by these kinds of pictures. They create distance, not knowledge.

        This is an important story, but Vernaschi has turned it into a pantomime for photo editors. The joke is not funny anymore.

      • JonathanJK says:

        Thanks for replying, i will check out the photographers you mentioned, ive only heard of Marcus Bleasdale.

  11. Just to give some more detail which do not come clear in our document. A quote from the Danish magazine “Journalisten” where Marco says:

    “I didn’t realise that the situation was dangerous until I opened the picture in my computer. The situation only lasted af few seconds and I was far from calm or analytical to see that I was close to the line of fire”.

    Between the two pictures of the assassination scene you have a time span of 11 minutes according to his camera log. Just to emphasize a very important point. Let’s see all the other pictures you have from those few seconds, 660 of them, please. I am still wondering, you know?


  12. Mikal W. Grass says:

    the photographer is in a car in the middle of nowhere, with a blindfolded guy and two armed men, and he didn’t know the gravity of the situation until he opened up the picture on his computer? i won’t comment on whether the photo was staged by him or for him, but his explanation is not credible. most of us, especially a seasoned photographer, would be scared to death.

  13. Helle Maj says:

    Africa has gone to bed (Jørn, that is). He will reply tomorrow.

  14. Hi Ben
    I am sorry if I confuse you instead of clearing things up. I just want to emphasize the timespan in Marco Vernashi’s explanation. That he actually spends a long time out there in the bush and that his exif files show that there are 11 minutes between the two shots. That’s all. If he took more than two or three pictures I don’t know – we will probably never get an answer if the people at WPP does not investigate this case seriously.

    • duckrabbit says:

      OK .. but I was just wondering. Do the exif files show that the two shots, where there is an 11 minute gap, were taken one after another?

  15. No they don’t. They are shot with two different cameras – two different lenses. The WPP is shot with a 50mm f/1.4 the other is shot with a zoom on 26mm f/2.8. But the cameras are both on the same time. If you compare other scenes shot with these Nikon D3’s.

    • duckrabbit says:

      ah, OK … well if you have time to change cameras then, well, you’re probably working a scene, right?

      Amazing that he says he thinks they are going to shoot the guy, then he walks round and stands in front of the gun! He has two cameras, is told to take shots, but in 11 minutes when this is going on he says he only takes two or three?

  16. Lisa Hogben says:

    The Pulitzer Centre and the WPPA should answer this question and demand that Vernashi’s files before and after the incident are made public. If there is no fabrication of the facts then he will be able to prove that surely by showing what else was shot in that eleven minute period. I am sure that he would have been shooting footage all the way through this trip as well… If he didn’t it would have been very remiss of him, especially as he seemed to be in no personal danger. I won’t comment any further than to say they could settle what is potentially a very damaging debate to our industry. I mean faith in modern professional journalism is pretty much at an all time low and this lingering doubt about Vernashi’s files would clear up any innuendo about his methods. Of course his alleged actions in persuading grieving parents to dig up a young girls body to photograph her after her burial in his quest for a shot do not give me much faith in his methods at all but in all fairness he should be able to simply publish the files. What harm could that do if in fact the events were not staged?

    John Edwin Mason has gotta be the smartest man around. I see the same thing all the time… photographers that win prizes for depicting a cliched view of the ‘other’… seems people don’t really want new ways of seeing- it doesn’t profit them near so much- better to reinforce negative stereotypes so that the entire industrial technological complex can keep ticking over. God forbid that a Congolese man from East Kivu (for instance) could be a polite well mannered intelligent gentleman, seen in sharp relief in broad daylight… No, no far better if he is depicted as a wretched murdering savage that deals drugs and rapes women and is only ever seen skulking in the shadows. And of course he also is incapable of controlling his own country. Wouldn’t serve the interests of the international mining companies or the NGO industry if he could. Ok so this is a rant but if Vernashi is trying to tell us this is the case, then at least lets see the evidence to prove it.

  17. Lisa Hogben says:

    I just realised I left the ‘C’ out of Vernaschi’s name each time I used it in the prior post… very remiss of me indeed…but he is a tricky little ‘C’ isn’t he?


  18. Hi Lisa
    I have done a small piece on stereotyping inspired by this debate. Check it out.

  19. I can not understand how two big institutions like WPP and Pulitzer can give so little feedback after this doubts. Is a very bold issue that show the compromises of all the parts have with our profession. I am tired to avoid the tendency of some editors to stage photos in order to create a more appealing image. We are not propaganda or publicity photographers. More and more i found me discussing this with other colleagues. I don’t care the retouching thing (except someone adds or erase something in the photo) or if the photo was made with an Iphone or with some application that make bold colors or contrast. This effect is obviously noted by the public. But this in not the case. If one photo essay is showed as news and photojournalism by a relevant institution we low our defenses and tend to see that as something that happened. I remember the big repercussion that had the cloned photoshoped photo. This issue include was published in wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adnan_Hajj_photographs_controversy). But i don’t found the same level of debate of this issue. It would be good too that the jury of the WPP make some comments about this issue. The jury is responsible about this selection and if they was deceived i suppose they want to know the true too.

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