Passepartout is all about documentaries and visual stuff I find worth seeing.

Truthful depictions? Two different photos, two different stories

Some weeks ago, the picture below went viral. In it, a 4 year old Syrian boy named Marwan being greeted by U.N. officials after supposedly crossing the desert all by himself. Andrew Harper, the U.N. Relief Agency’s representative in Jordan, posted the image saying the boy had been ‘temporarily separated’ from his family. He later clarified that ‘separated’ didn’t mean he was alone. He was simply walking at the end of the refugee group. Before he clarified this, the image had already gone viral.


‘UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing Syria’ is the Tweet CNN’s Hala Gorani posted. The tweet has been retwitted 8000 times.

The Washington Post wrote an article about the story of this viral photo. ‘The fact that the boy was never alone doesn’t make Marwan’s story, or the stories of the more than 1 million other children who have been forced to flee their home country, any less heartbreaking.’ they wrote. I agree, but does this justify the deceitful framing of the photo? Deceiving photos can only make people skeptical. Are the means excused if the goal is to get attention to a humanitarian cause?


Marwan’s photo reminded me of another story. In 1993, photojournalist Kevin Carter went to Sudan and took a photo that everyone knows (see below). In it, a malnourished girl, lacking the power to move, while watched from behind by an eagle. The photo was first published in The New York Times and won the Pulizer Prize.

But in an unexpected turn of events, after a large number of readers wrote to the NYT asking about the fate of this little girl, Carter had to tell the real story behind it. The girl was close to a food center and her parents were close by. The photo was a result of circumstances and intentional framing. Just like the photo of the 4 year old Marwan is.

Kevin Carter

The outcome of Carter’s story is quite different though. For a while Carter was thorn between being considered a heartless bastard by people questioning his morality – leaving a child in such a situation and only taking a photo? who does that? – and admitting that his Pulizer Prize winning photo was in fact…a fake. Or not a fake but a framed photo. After he eventually admitted to the real story of the photo, no one wanted to hire him anymore. He eventually killed himself, cornered, depressed and jobless.

In Carter’s case, no one pointed to the fact that even if the photo he took had a different story behind, it actually spoke for the drama of malnutrition of the girl in it and other 617 million children affected by malnutrition. The photo was not what it claimed to be and that was all that mattered. A fake story put a strong photo on a dead line.

Marwan’s photo is also not what it initially claimed to be. And the photo in itself is not that strong. What is strong is the fact that one little boy, carrying a plastic bag, had to leave his home and his toys to walk across the desert to an unknown place together with his family and a bunch of others. That story is already strong enough. Elegantly lying about the photo of Marwan and pretending that’s alright is what undermines its reality, its credibility, and doesn’t do a favor to the boy’s story and to more than 1 million others who have to leave their homes behind.


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