Girl erased, but not gone

“Uganda’s Greta” was cropped from a photo; is her cause ignored, too?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Recently, a scandal erupted over a decision by Associated Press to crop 23-year old Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, out of a group photo that also featured Greta Thunberg.

The photo they ran showed four young white climate campaigners against the scenic backdrop of mountains in Davos, Switzerland, where the activists were making their case for emergency action at the annual summit of world leaders.

Vanessa Tweet

Vanessa Nakate’s tweet showed the AP’s cropped photo and the actual lineup.

The AP at first tried to excuse the mistake, claiming Nakate was erased due not to racism but “purely on composition grounds”  because the building behind her “was distracting” and because they wanted to get Thunberg into the center of the picture.

What AP missed completely, and recognized in a later apology, was that whether the decision was aesthetic or not, the implications and consequences of omitting the one person of color from the group overrode any concerns about the ugliness of the building behind her. It should never have happened.

And so, Vanessa Nakate became the girl erased. But the bigger problem is that her cause continues to be erased as well. The alarm bells she is ringing about the consequences of the climate crisis in Africa, simply don’t make much press.

On October 29, 2019, Nakate tweeted: “The Amazon burns and the whole world talks about it! California burns and the whole world talks about it! Congo rainforest burns and a young girl talks about it! People are actually dying in Africa. But if these news companies don’t talk about fires in Africa, it is sad.”

One problem about covering the further flung stories, suggests Julian Brave NoiseCat, independent journalist and vice president for policy and strategy at Data for Progress, is that financially struggling news rooms simply don’t have the budgets anymore. “It’s expensive, event to get me to North Dakota,” he said, during a recent panel of climate journalists, describing his coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline rebellion.

But, as Nakate hints at, it’s also about editorial bias. Justin Worland, who covers climate change for Time magazine, spoke on the same panel with Brave NoiseCat, held at the Takoma Park, Maryland Busboys & Poets. He pointed out that it is easier for editors to get readers interested in the fires in Australia, where the victims largely look like them — and, as he observed, like most of us in the listening audience that evening — than in stories about people in the Global South.

Last September, hoping to shift that prejudice, we ran an article about the Congo rainforest fires on this website — Africa is also burning. We had come across it only in Italian. It seemed like an important and utterly overlooked story. So we secured permission from the reporter, translated it into English and published both versions. Hopefully, it helped amplify this crisis to a wider audience. But we are not Time magazine. It is not enough.

So what is happening in the under-reported Global South? According to Nakate, droughts, fires and floods have wreaked devastation in Africa.

“Specifically in Uganda, we’ve seen the impact through torrential rainfall that has destroyed a number of things in my country,” Nakate told Democracy Now! during an interview while she attended — and protested at — the UN climate summit in Madrid in December.  “And each time it rains, these rains are so heavy, in that they cause floods that kill people. Every time you watch news, you have to expect to see that someone died as a result of the floods. You will have to see that people’s homes have been destroyed as a result of floods. You will have to see that farms have been destroyed as a result of floods. And this is a crisis to the people in Uganda.”

And on the other side of the climate crisis coin is drought. “There are areas that experience extreme drought,” Nakate told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. “And this is affecting the crop production in those areas. In my country, most people depend on their farms and crops for survival. But with all these droughts and floods, people are left with no hope for the future.”

Even before the infamous AP photo and its aftermath, Nakate was already frustrated with the lack of press coverage. “The media is so biased by the climate crisis,” Nakate told Goodman. Like Worland, she agrees that “Its focus is on selling news.”

That means a focus on the West. “They keep talking about climate change being a matter of the future, but they forget that people of the Global South, it is a matter of now,” she said on Democracy Now! “And they have to help us report these things, because if they don’t report these things, our leaders won’t understand the importance of these strikes that we are holding.”

Nakate faces another entrenched challenge, I feel, a media tendency, no matter the topic, to focus on personalities. And especially on white personalities. So Greta Thunberg must be in the photo, but Vanessa Nakate need not be. When Greta speaks, it makes news. When someone else does, not so much.

That said, we must of course recognize that it was Thunberg who set the global youth climate strike in motion. She is deserving of her headlines. However, we have reached a point now where the spotlight can swivel a little.

Not all media are guilty of this obsession with “stars”. During Davos, Nakate participated in a Rolling Stone magazine roundtable chat with four other young international climate activists in Davos. The magazine headlined their article on the conversation with a group photo that had Nakate right in the center. There was no Greta. 

Nakate, like Thunberg, started out protesting each week in the street, alone. Unlike Thunberg, however, the personal risks Nakate faces for doing so are enormous.

“In my country, it’s illegal to protest for anything because we do not have freedom of speech,” Nakate said during the Rolling Stone conversation. “It affects many people’s decisions. Many people would love to join the activism, but they’re afraid of being arrested, or having to face tear gas and all that.” Protesting in large groups is illegal in Uganda.

Vanessa Nakate Twitter

Vanessa Nakate is a solo climate striker in Uganda. (Photo: @vanessa_vash Vanessa Nakate on Twitter)

Despite this, an Extinction Rebellion Uganda is now active in the country.

And while Nakate may still find herself alone in the street, many have joined her #SaveTheCongoRainforest campaign on Twitter.

Says Nakate of Uganda: “Literally, in my country, a lack of rain means starvation and death for the less privileged.”

Now, the news media must no longer starve its audience of the crucial news stories coming out of Africa. There, as Nakate points out, the culpability for the climate crisis is lowest while many of its impacts are the worst.

%d bloggers like this: