Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Some Further Thoughts on Vernaschi's Sacrifice Photos

On April 16 the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting published writings and photographs by Marco Vernaschi in a self described effort to uncover the hidden horror of child exorcism and sacrifice in Uganda. What seems clear is that Vernaschi, while making the images, asked the parents of a girl who had been murdered to exhume her body so that he could photograph her remains. This ignited a strong backlash and a sustained ethical debate throughout the photojournalism blogging community, with important contributions from Benjamin Chesterton [1], Asim Rafiqui [2], A. J. Somerset [3], Joerg Colberg [4], Anne Holmes [5], Tewfic El-Sawy [6], and a very long running thread on Lightstalkers[7].

The critique of his work has largely been made along the lines of examining the ethics of this act, which is an important aspect of the story and well worth the reading.

There is also a broader set of aesthetic issues involved, and a series of questions rising from something we can all examine directly, the photographs themselves and their support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The children in this work inhabit a nightmare world of perpetual darkness, where time and space are frequently distorted as if in a Francis Bacon painting. Frozen, stretched, and blurry skull-like faces with socket eyes emerge from pools of black. Low light effects add to the sense of the macabre. A snap zoom applied to a graffiti skull gives it a 3D appearance, as if it rises up out of the picture plane. Here children are preyed upon, tortured, exorcised, and presumably killed, all depicted in a highly internally consistent visual language.

The photographs build on a wide range of contemporary Western cultural products, including American and Japanese horror films [see addendum below]. There are flashes of "The Ring", with its sense of compressed and distorted time. Hints of German Expressionism. Even Edvard Munch's "The Scream". All presented without explanation or context. The images are highly evocative and they play on well established Western cultural productions based on the real experiences of suffering and pain, as well as fantasies about the occult as an agency that preys on children, both as victims and as perpetrators.

The latent question is how much of this is reporting and how much is derived from existing Western cultural productions and fascinations already saturated with ritualized child murder or sacrifice?

Were this work to have remained in Vernaschi's photoshelter gallery, it would exist somewhat on its own terms. However, its publication and support by the Pulitzer Center gives it credit, not as a cultural product, but as photojournalism that is important, necessary, and that we should strive to emulate or carry further.

This begs another series of questions which reflect back on the maker and the publishers. To what extent is the visual language of photojournalism dependent on cultural forms of expression that are heavily entertainment based? And where these influences exist--and they do exist--should we not be as equally interested in exploring their impact on the world as we are in 'exposing' hidden horrors such as these?

The two issues are not independent of each other. When we go to make images, we make images that reflect on us. One cannot make a consistent body of work that is independent of this dynamic. The more unique and individuated the body of work, the more the images reflect back on the creators themselves. Vernaschi's photographs draw heavily on pre-existing visual culture, almost all of which exists outside the conventions of journalism. So, it's a fair question to ask. To what extent is this actually reporting? And to the extent that it is not, what is it? For it clearly has value within the economy of the Pulitzer organization.

Photographs are made and published in an economy of exchange that involves money, status, recognition and power within the industry. That is the particular economy within which these images should be seen. The question should always be; to what end are these images in distribution? Which masters do they serve?

We also should examine how culturally close we in the West might be to participating in these depictions of ritualized child sacrifice, and how close their metaphors might resonate here at home. From reading Vernaschi's captions, the sacrifices are made in an effort to extract some of the essences of the child and transfer them to another, preserving or enhancing in some way the innocence and youth of another person, an endeavor, a building.

Do we not also perform a similar ritual? How many Western child actors/actresses and models have had their youth extracted and disseminated as the products of popular culture, only to find themselves discarded at the end of the process? We have entire industries built on that very exchange, the sale of youth through pictures, film, fashion, advertising and popular culture. We may not physically dismember their bodies, but the psychological, social, and psychic effects are just as real.

There has also emerged a highly stylized public fascination with the infliction of pain on children or the innocent. Just tonight, as I am writing, an entire hour of broadcast television is being devoted to a popular crime drama in which children are kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Which is to say that we have a sufficient public fascination with the subject that, if presented properly, it can be an effective means of selling advertising.

Vernaschi's photographs create a pictorial horror show out of an otherwise poorly articulated set of practices in Uganda. And in doing so reflect in a mirror back to the West its own cultural productions, fears, and fantasies about ritualized child abuse and the dark continent. In doing so they say more about Western cultural productions than they do about anything I know of Africa.

For a more informative read about spirit possession and how it is practiced within African societies, I highly recommend Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa, Heike Behrend and Ute Luig, Editors. Of special value to this conversation are Power to Heal, Power to Kill: Spirit possession & war in Northern Uganda (1986-1994) by Heike Behrend, and Linda L. Giles' nuanced work on the complexity and personality of the spirits doing the possessing in Spirit Possession & the Symbolic Construction of Swahili Society. 

Spirit possession provides an ideal medium for the creation of cultural texts. It creates powerful metaphorical dramas that are enacted in human form but attributed to the spirit world. The human actors are not actors in the conventional sense but a stage--the human body becomes a vehicle for the spirits to communicate with and interact with the human world. Some scholars have noted that the human vehicles often occupy a structural position that makes them culturally appropriate to play this role (Nicholas 1972; Lambeck 1981; Kapferer 1983; Giles 1987). Hence participation in spirit possession can be seen as a positive social role rather than an indication of their social deprivation and possession itself as an 'integral part of the whole culture' rather than an isolated 'subculture' (Lambek 1981:63).

from Spirit Possession & the Symbolic Construction of Swahili Society, p 143
The practice of spirit possession in African societies is something much more complex and multidimensional than the horror tinged aura of Vernaschi's photographs would lead us to understand.

I think we can all agree that ritualized child sacrifice is wrong, and where it exists, it should be stopped. The questions here are: do Vernaschi's photographs provide evidence and support towards that conclusion, or do they perform a different function--feeding another cultural need to metaphorically extract and consume the essences of youth as cultural products while simultaneously expressing our horror at the practice? I suspect the answer is located more in the latter than the former.

Addendum: In the horror film connection I am referring to the visual effect in which demonically possessed or influenced characters become physically elastic and perform acts and distortions that are otherworldly and for the normal person physically impossible. This is a visual marker that establishes the character as exhibiting supernatural influence. It is common throughout the genre because it tends to activate a deeply rooted fear in all of us. If the paranormal is capable of manipulating or distorting the physical world, then it is capable of harming or killing in ways for which we have little or no defense. (Thanks, Joerg).

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