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The Powerful Picture That Changed a Girl’s Life

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Aixa Ponce Cano was born with CMN Syndrome (Congenital Melanocytic Nevus) consisting of giant, hairy-pigmented moles all over her body and has three big tumors on her back. She lives in Avia Terai, Argentina, with her mother and 6 siblings, in close proximity to soybean fields that are regularly sprayed with pesticides.

Editors note: This story was updated on March 19 to provide more context on the use of agrochemicals in Argentina.

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Aixa Ponce Cano was born in the small town of Avia Terai in rural Argentina with tumors on her back and moles covering her body. Her mother, like most other people in Avia Terai, lives near soybean fields that are regularly sprayed with agrochemicals meant to act as pesticides and weed killers.

Photographer Marco Vernaschi visited Avia Terai for two weeks last March and made portraits of Aixa, along with other residents, to explore the dangers of living so close to the intensive fumigations, and under conditions where he says the chemicals are not applied or stored properly.

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In Avia Terai, playing outside has become a dangerous activity for children, because both fields and water pools around the town are contaminated by agrochemicals.

For context: Nearly all of Argentina’s soy crop is grown from genetically modified seeds. While these plants, and the agrochemicals normally applied to them, have been approved as safe by the EPA when used in accordance with manufacturers instructions, their application in Argentina goes largely unregulated. The Associated Press and the BBC have reported that the misuse of these chemicals may be causing severe health problems and birth defects for those who live near the soy fields in Argentina—including the residents of Avia Terai.

In the AP story, Monsanto, the company that engineers the seeds and the chemicals, says it “does not condone the misuse of pesticides or the violation of any pesticide law, regulation, or court ruling.”

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Claudia Sariski is expecting her fourth child. Her family has no running water, so they collect it into plastic containers that had previously been filled with herbicides. Two of Claudia’s children suffer from respiratory diseases.

Last year, after Vernaschi’s photo of Aixa was published in the U.K. Sunday Times Magazine (her portrait is at the top of this page), something amazing happened that suddenly and dramatically changed her life.

Vernaschi was contacted by a famous music star—who wishes to remain anonymous—who wanted to help change her life.

“I usually sleep with my phone by my bed, so the first thing I did when I opened my eyes and saw the email from [the musician], I thought it was spam,” said Vernaschi.

“In a very kind manner he wrote and said, ‘I’ve seen this spread in the Sunday Times Magazine and I want to help the little child with the moles on her skin. I think we should work to raise attention and awareness of what’s happening.’”

“I literally jumped out of bed,” said Vernaschi.

That email, followed by a significant monetary contribution from the musician, started a chain of events that brought Aixa and her mother, Sylvia, from their small town in Chaco Province to a private clinic in Buenos Aires. Vernaschi not only located the clinic, but also arranged for a plastic surgeon, dermatologist, oncologist, and pediatrician to provide for her care. She went through a week of testing, and then had a four-hour surgery to remove the massive tumors and a few moles on her face.

“It’s the very first time that a picture of mine managed to produce a real change—it may be a small change, but it’s a real change,” said Vernaschi.

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Avia Terai’s main well is placed right in the middle of a soybean field and is exposed to continuous agrochemical contamination. Some people have started to dig their own wells near their houses, with the hope of having control over their own water.

What’s even more remarkable about the donation given to Aixa is that in Vernaschi’s photographic approach to this series—called Bitter Harvest—he says he made a conscious effort not to draw attention to the visible health problems and severe deformations of his subjects. He says that’s been done before by the international media, and he wanted to avoid a visual cliché that victimized the people further. (In fact, when he showed me a snapshot of Aixa’s back before the surgery, I was shocked at how severe her tumors were.) He uses the respirator masks as a symbol of the daily dangers they face.

Vernaschi also tones the skies in some images a surreal color to represent the illusion that the soy boom has been good for Argentina, while it may in fact be making people sick. He says by shifting the colors, he hopes to grab viewer’s attention in a non-sensationalistic way, while still conveying the seriousness of the problem.

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The Roa family poses in the courtyard of their house in Avia Terai. Ten-year-old Alina Laura Roa (center) suffers from hypothyroidism and neurological problems.

And while Vernaschi is overjoyed by the success of Aixa’s story, he knows that helping just one child doesn’t solve the larger problem of Argentina’s agrochemical misuse.

To bring awareness to Argentina and help promote a more sustainable model of rural development, Vernaschi has started a campaign called Seeds for Life, which is supported by his nonprofit foundation Biophilia. The foundation’s goal is to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity while emphasizing the cultural identity, history, and traditions of local communities.

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When the cistern is empty, buying water from a man who delivers it door-to-door is the only option, as bottled water is out reach for most families.

As for Aixa and her musician supporter: “That was hugely lucky for her, because among all the children she was the one most visibly affected and her life was difficult,” said Vernaschi. “After the surgery she can now play and enjoy life as most children do, with a big smile on her face, despite her condition still affecting her—and it will certainly affect her future.”

Perhaps best of all, while accompanying Aixa for treatment in Buenos Aires, her mom gave birth to a baby boy this January. She named him Marco.

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See more photos from Marco Vernaschi in the story “Argentine Identities” in the April issue of National Geographic.

Learn more about the Biophilia Foundation, and see more of Marco Vernaschi’s work on his website and Instagram.


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