• March 16, 2015

The Powerful Picture That Changed a Girl’s Life

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


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.

Picture of boys with respirators in Avia Terai, Argentina.
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.”

Picture of a pregnant woman wearing a respirator.
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.

Picture of man and boy with a water well.
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.

Picture of the Roa family in Avia Terai, Argentina.
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.

Picture of a man delivering water in Avia Terai, Argentina.
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.


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.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Alicia
    April 12, 2015

    Wow, amazing work! Congrats to both NG and the author and the mysterious rockstar that helped this child. This story is at the time inspiring and sad. I’m Argentinian and I can’t believe some people still don’t get agrochemicals are really dangerous… a few weeks ago, the World Health Organization officially classified glyphosate as a “possible carcinogenic”… wake up!

  2. Hens F.
    April 12, 2015

    I’m German and I live in Argentina since 8 years. It’s very sad to see this happening while the Argentine Government pretends the problem doesn’t exist. I’ve been in Chaco several times and I can say the situation is really bad: local politicians do whatever the want and people are powerless.

    Regarding the series, it was published on the German magazine Süeddeusche Zeitung, where I first saw it. I think the photographs are just great. They certainly are provocative but definitely in a meaningful and truthful way. I’m really glad they managed to change a little girl’s life for better and I hope they will keep attracting the attention on this issue.


  3. Hernan Zenteno
    April 8, 2015
  4. Claudia
    April 8, 2015

    why so many problems around the world are discovered by foreigner,you asked Tim. Maybe not discovered but they made it known in the USA. Many things are known by many people, not always published and rarely reach the eyes of the rest of the world. This case was already studied privately in Argentina, the study was sent to the gov and they never said a pip.I googled it.

  5. Claudia
    April 8, 2015

    I’m Argentinian and I’ve never heard of Avia Terai, until now. This note is just a little example of what’s going on in Argentina and especifically in the province of Chaco and all the North of the country. But I don’t like it when reporters use tricks to make their messages stronger. If the message isn’t 100% veracious, what’s the use? A bit of a lie makes everything shady and not trustworthy. Then the message is lost. Finished.
    The national and provincial governments do nothing but if you hear them, they are all for the poor,the needed, the pariahs. Pseudo communist’s BS. The vast majority of the NorthEast and NorthWest of Argentina doesn’t have a proper water supply, let alone pure water. And politicians in power don’t care a bit. As long as they have their share of the pie, everyone can die in agony and all our water reserve can be poisoned. In the last 12 years, many of the most dirty companies had come into Argentina to take everything they can and leave nothing but poison. They paid huge bribes and in exchange they barely pay any taxes…if they do. And at least one of the soy pools is in the hands of gov members via a front man. Unbelievable, maybe. But true. I don’t know if those in Chaco have ties with the gov, but I know they can do what they do because the gov doesn’t care at all.

  6. katherine
    March 30, 2015

    well i find this to be a little concerning i do not trust gmos what so ever but i know that my child has a gcmn as well as this girl he was born in america lives in america and nothing was raised in concern to him and gmo as well as the many other american nevus owners i am sorry but i dont kno if gmo can cause gcmn but i do kno that niether do you so go ahead and blame gmos but there are parents out there who are almost seeing this a racial nevus owners are not dieased they mearly have differant skin yes there likely hood of melanoma or skin cancer and other heath risk are a little higher then normal but i know that the case is not just gmo if at all honestly it happens to one in half a million people and i only see one person in the pictures with a nevus so i have personally come to the conclusion that it is possible that gmo contributed to the nevus but it is not causing it or more of the people intoxicated by the gmo would have cmn wouldnt they yes it does make me wonder tho because people that shop at places like walmart (myself) buy food that was made with gmos (not aware of which items to buy or not due to not making labeling gmo manditory) well i wonder if other problums are cause by gmo is there a specific strand of pesticide that is causing each illness i say testing should be done science will reveal answers and as long as it is legal to use i dont trust food at all sorry for the rant im just a confused concerned offended mom just as the mother of this girl …… i say dont risk the gmo move somewhere safe and grow your own…. i kno easier said then done tell me about it single mom here

  7. Karyn
    March 27, 2015

    wake up everyone wake up

  8. VPR
    March 18, 2015

    Hernan, this series of photographs is as strong as the positive impact that caused. There are different ways and languages to tell a factual story, and this is one. The article clearly states that skies were toned with a specific purpose and respirator masks were used as a symbol… Like it or not, the story was effective the way it is.
    Regarding Argentine photographers there are several who are talented and that publish their works worldwide….

    • Hernan Zenteno
      March 18, 2015

      I know a strong work that had no luck to be published worldwide. Appears that editors prefer this kind of new tendency to tell stories. And my little and unimportant opinion is that this action will affect our credibility at some point. My question is why we need to alter situations that are strong in itself of so important issue? At the light of last discussion during the last word press photo I think is a good idea debate this trend supported by editors. Marco put it clear as you mentioned. But how affect that the credibility of photos if we accept from the beginning that the children are posing with mask that they usually don’t use.
      An eminent photographer replied me several years ago about staging, so what? the important is the message. This can be apply here. But honestly this don’t fit in the ethics code of photojournalism. Surely I am a dinosaur and maybe in the future several stories will be staged, lighted with flashes and worked with post production software to compite against the advertisements and make conscience of the problems of our society. But for me, and now, this make a terrible noise.

  9. Alex Ferrara
    March 17, 2015

    Vicky is absolutely right. Knowledge and respect for life are the keys to stop the disaster these pesticide companies are causing. I strongly recommend all readers the Argentine book Malcomidos.

  10. Hernan Zenteno
    March 17, 2015

    Tim, there are excellent work from local photographers. But they have not exposition as others. I coincide with the effects and the topic but not the way of work of Marco. I doubt all this people live with this masks. Is not so in the 99 percent for sure. I don’t see either the necessity of change the color of the sky. There are enough power images out there to start change things. Marco maybe is a compromised artist but not a photojournalist. I don’t like the stage of things like the masks and turn de sky in a other color. In this case I will consider painting. There photographers that tell the same without this things. Why they have not space in the mass media? Editors are part of the chain that feed the last increase to 20% of images disqualified in the Last World Press Photo. This is spit to the sky, public can ask why I must to believe to that photos if something is not honest? Just to think.

  11. Vicky
    March 17, 2015

    People need to become more educated as to the dangers of GMO’s. The person who alleged that GMO’s require less pesticide use is completely misinformed. GMO’s require heavy doses of pesticides. In fact, the manufacturers themselves have admitted they require increasingly heavy applications of toxic pesticides. The companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, make toxic pesticides in addition to their genetically modified seeds and plants. GMO crops have decreased crop yields. The “food” is nutritionally deficient and highly toxic. We are allowing these disgusting and evil corporations to destroy our world. We don’t need your GMO cr**. It will not feed the world, but it will kill it.

  12. Michelle Sibbons
    March 17, 2015

    This young girl has Congenital Melanocytic Naevus. There are children all over the world with this same condition including in Argentina. For more information, to connect with others, support research or find out more please go to http://naevusglobal.org/

  13. Cruzita Zamora
    March 17, 2015

    I saw a lot of people commenting calling this propaganda, saying pesticides are safe when used in small amounts are safe. A small amount of arsenic won’t kill you either. Neither will a small amount of cyanide. A dog can drink a small amount of antifreeze and be OK. Should we sprinkle a little on every meal just because a small amount won’t kill you? What about after a week, or a year? What about a few year and a few generations down the line? What affects will it have then? A little bit of cocaine while your pregnant probably won’t kill you either, and it probably won’t kill your baby, so is that OK? I think when humans start thinking they know more than mother nature we’re playing a dangerous game. And the few who think they know it all are going to screw the rest of us.

  14. Nsereko Lawrence
    March 17, 2015

    In Uganda we are still experimenting with those dangerous GMOs , we have already seen the dangers but our politicians are influenced by money from the killers (donors ) . I pray that we wake up in Africa and keep the eyes on the look-out. GOD BLESS THE WORLD.

  15. Scott
    March 17, 2015

    The Ag-chem biotech narrative goes as follows: “Only GMOs can feed a growing world population” while spraying godawful amounts of poisons on the land, food, water and people. Time to change the narrative before it’s too late.

  16. Heather Etchevers
    March 17, 2015

    For more information about the giant congenital melanocytic nevus, with which Aixa was born and others around the world who were not exposed to the same environment, please see http://naevusglobal.org. There are links to national organizations including Nevus Argentina and means by which to make donations of time or money to research, access to medical care, or the propagation of accurate information.

  17. soe moe
    March 17, 2015

    a real silent spring! but why farmers are living in the farms? ain’t there national land use plan? or watershed management ? i think it is only accountability of government

  18. kizzie Neale
    March 17, 2015

    This young girl looks as though she has a skin condition called giant congenital melanocytic nevus. It affects just 1 in 500,000. My 2 year old daughter has the same.

  19. RyN
    March 17, 2015

    so… You live in toxic hell. Why have children??

  20. saif
    March 17, 2015

    Keep it up ververnaschi .
    Insted peple should be evacuated fromm that place.and rehabilitation camps should be made for them.
    Local ngos should come forward.

  21. KC
    March 17, 2015

    it’s a shame that there are actually people on this post that are talking good about GMO plants of any sort if you genetically modify something that humanity as well as every other animal on this earth has not had time to adapt to it’s being modified they are going to be difficulties arising from the sudden introduction of a new structured food source

  22. Kelly Jackson
    March 16, 2015

    This is very misleading. Notice how the article states the photographer used masks “as a symbol” of the daily dangers they face. These people are not walking around with masks on around their homes. This photographer made them put on masks and pose for photos. And most of the other comments are correct, this seems to be much more of an issue of misuse of chemicals than GMOs. GMOs allow for decreased pesticide use. Chemicals need to be respected in application and post application. Proper re-entry periods and post harvest intervals need to monitored. If you blatantly ignore the proper guidelines of use horrible things and health consequences can occur. This country needs better enforcement’s of regulation.

  23. Maria
    March 16, 2015

    Thank you National Geographic for publishing this story. I live in Argentina and unfortunately the national press barely mention the situation. For sure, they would never show these pictures as most journalist here are busy to protect the interest the strong soybean-lobby.

    This child managed to receive some attention, as usual from someone from outside of the country… but there are still many children who need help. During the past months several children died for starvation in the Northwest, and nobody cares.

    For those who have doubts about what’s happening here, why don´t you take a tour through our country and check with your eyes how bad the situation is?

  24. joe testa
    March 16, 2015

    What a nice article on a difficult subject. It’s a shame that gullible fools or insidious astro-turfers have come here to call this propaganda.

  25. JM
    March 16, 2015

    If only they used Roundup resistant soy instead of conventional soy they could spray the low-toxicity herbicide glyphosate instead of whatever non-GM plant toxic sh** they are using instead.

  26. Richard Kupsch
    March 16, 2015

    Neonicotinoids: are a relatively new class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death. They include imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.
    Chemicals Implicated – Beyond Pesticides

  27. Kris
    March 16, 2015

    While this is not a good situation, the article makes it seem like it is the fault of GMO crops, when in fact it is the chemicals applied to those crops. Most GMO crops actually need fewer chemical treatments than others. This is very misleading and just another example of how false rumors spread about something that the author is ignorant about. Sad situation for both sides.

  28. Tammy
    March 16, 2015

    And thank you for posting this story!

  29. Tammy
    March 16, 2015

    For the folks calling this article propaganda, or that pesticides and GMO crops have nothing to do with each other have some serious homework to do. The soybean are GMo to resist the effects of the sprayed pesticides. Pesticides could be herbicides or insecticides. Please folks, do some homework.

  30. Anacleto Memas
    March 16, 2015

    This article is shameful and propagandistic. You fascists and your anti-GMO propaganda are disgusting.

  31. Ivan Cardozo
    March 16, 2015

    New journalism? Now we have to read garbage which is following the agenda of the misinformed

  32. Justin
    March 16, 2015

    What does “genetically modified” have anything to do with this? Sensationalism? Shame on you.

  33. Matt
    March 16, 2015

    This article needs to clearly state how Argentine farmers spray far beyond the amounts that the pesticide manufacturer suggests, and the government there refuses to step up and enact/enforce application limits. It’s irresponsible to leave it to the reader to infer that the pesticides are dangerous when properly applied, which as Steve pointed out, the article does seem to imply this. With the previous issue tackling pseudoscience, a disclaimer of sorts would help against those that will use this article as “proof” that GMOs are bad, and there are a lot of those antiscience types out there.

  34. Danny Stamp
    March 16, 2015

    This is horribly misleading propaganda. It is taking people who have suffered and then using this to back and ideological attack on GMO foods. There’s no science stating causation, but rather a photo. A photo which itself insists is enough to go on. This is more rubbish aimed at scaring people into buying overpriced organic food. Shame on you for propagating such anti-scientific materials.

  35. Ddant
    March 16, 2015

    Keep looking for the “Onion” title. Plz tell me this is the onion…Totally devoid of any science or fact…

  36. Deborah Harris-Rosson
    March 16, 2015

    Oh sweet children. No blame. Awareness of our human neighbors wherever they reside on Mother Earth.
    1 picture does speak 10,000 words. We must treat her with reverence & respect. Now that we are aware, how can we continue? Oh sweet children

  37. Coburn Dukehart
    March 16, 2015

    Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. Check out the link to the AP article in my story for a more in-depth review of the scientific situation. This short Proof article tells Aixa’s story, and that of the photographer’s experience there.

  38. Steve
    March 16, 2015

    It’s insanely irresponsible of NatGeo to imply that these peoples’ health problems are related to the genetic modification of crops, rather than the reckless spraying of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. What has happened to these people is terrible, but misplaced blame will do nothing to resolve the situation.

  39. Carla
    March 16, 2015

    I’ve read so much about GMO’s and our country is behind in it’s labeling of food products. How sad to have to wear a mask to go outside for a “breath of fresh air”. Thank you for your photos. It really wakes you up.

  40. Alex Ferrara
    March 16, 2015

    Marco Vernaschi’s work is inspiring, conscience-raising and deeply moving. Congratulations to him and to N.G. for promoting it.

  41. Tim
    March 16, 2015

    why so many problems around the world are discovered by foreigner?

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