This photo-essay by Marco Vernaschi, an Italian photojournalist based in Buenos Aires, has won the Grand Prize in the Lens Culture International Exposure Awards for 2009.

Vernaschi's hard-hitting reporting on the consequences of cocaine trafficking in the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau is at once riveting, shocking, profoundly disturbing, and impossible to forget.

He began his long-term project, West Africa's New Achilles' Heel, in order to document the major illegal activities behind international terrorism. His work on cocaine trafficking has the overall goal of showing how unaware consumers in the West are that they support terrorism. 

Supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center, Vernaschi has set out to document the direct effects of cocaine trafficking in West Africa. During this coverage, Marco spent a considerable amount of time with an African organization of drug traffickers affiliated with Islamist terrorists, documenting their criminal activities and the devastating social impact on local people, including crack addiction, prostitution, HIV and AIDS.

Vernaschi's work has previously taken him to Bolivia, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Belize. His photographs and reporting are published internationally by major magazines including Newsweek andNational Geographic. He was selected among the 10 winners of the Ojo De Pez Award for Human Values 2009.

Vernaschi says this about his approach to this project:

"Our concept of the world of drug trafficking is often based on cultural influences like movies... it's not something that most of us normally experience in day to day life. When I set out to research and document this story, I wanted my pictures to be both unexpected and real, straight and metaphoric. This photo essay is built up on fragments of nightmares where blood, murder, sex and drug addiction violently reveal real human misery. I think that the explicit and cinematic approach used for most of these images helps to open the back door of our mind — our imagination — where our fears meet the truth. 

"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."

Marco Vernaschi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1973; he is currently based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. You can learn more about him and his work at his website:

As winner of the 2009 Lens Culture International Exposure Portfolio Award, he will receive a $1,500 cash prize from Lens Culture, $1,000 credit toward a custom-designed website by LiveBooks, and a personally designed photobook printed by Blurb

Our hope is that this story will attract widespread attention — and encourage others to help spread awareness — in an effort to find solutions to deep-rooted social problems such as these.

— Jim Casper