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The Syrian Orphan in That Viral Photo Wasn't Actually an Orphan, But It Doesn't Matter

Twitter/@and_harper (Andrew Harper)

The photograph first started circulating on Sunday: a child, dressed warmly in a puffy jacket and carrying a plastic bag, toddling alone in the desert at the Hagallat border crossing between Syria and Jordan. He had a name, too: Marwan, age 4, whom the United Nations staffer tweeting the photograph described as “temporarily separated from his family.” Hala Gorani, a CNN anchor, had it a little different when she reposted the image the next day: “UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing Syria,” her caption read, and 8,775 followers decided to amplify it.

From there the image propagated to news sites and aggregators, with ever more heartbreaking captions, and nearly made it to the cover of the Guardian—but that newspaper actually decided to factcheck, and a call to someone with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that the boy was just 20 steps behind his parents. 

“Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true,” Angelo says in Measure for Measure. It can feel that way on the Web these days, where nearly every viral image or story seems to be at least partly confected and the convergence of every digital publisher’s business model—hits, hits, hits, hits, hits, against ever-falling advertising rates—leads editors to publish before verifying facts and indulge in a cheap burst of viral traffic. Fake tales of an airline passenger’s complaints or a child’s letter to Santa rocket to the top of most-shared lists, and later corrections, if the stories are corrected at all, make little difference to media proprietors and, perhaps, to readers. “The Internet is a giant lie factory,” Vice wails; Gawker now has an entire vertical, “Antiviral,” devoted to debunking widely circulated photographs. Even the devastating Syrian civil war, which you might have thought was horrible enough without embellishment, is not immune: Just last month, half the Internet reproduced an image of a boy sleeping between two graves, with a caption indicating that his parents lay buried beside him. It turns out that the photo was staged by an artist in Saudi Arabia, and some web users threw the caption on themselves. 

The Marwan image was deceptive too, but it wasn’t exactly a fiction. The photograph wasn’t counterfeit; it was just miscaptioned, oversold. Is that a good enough reason to consign it to the junk bin? I’d like to suggest otherwise. The Marwan image, after all, was not the only photograph that the UNHCR representative posted from the border. Just after, he posted a shot of dozens of refugees streaming into Jordan, which got just 47 retweets. There was also a shot of Malala Yousafzai, the ubiquitous Pakistani schoolgirl and education advocate, who had accompanied him to the refugee site (20 retweets), and another of a road being constructed to ease evacuations (six retweets). Marwan—a pseudonym, by the way; the UNHCR officer chose it to protect the child’s identity—went viral for a reason: He was a synecdoche, a means of coming to terms with an unfathomable humanitarian disaster and not necessarily a distraction from that disaster’s realities. That Marwan was not what he seemed to be, that he was a refugee but not an orphan, is obviously regrettable. But the force of the image did not derive from the caption; it is the larger disaster that the image evokes, with the correct caption as much as the incorrect one, that gives it power. 

The Marwan image is sentimental, certainly. He’s only a boy, an innocent whose life has been upended. He strikes an obvious emotional chord—he could be your child—in a way that the daily torture, starvation, and execution of Syrians do not. (A huge cache of important, astoundingly violent photographs from Syria, evidence of systematic mutilation and killing, did not get nearly as much attention when it came to light last month.) But images of war, though photographers would be loath to admit this, often work through sentimentalism. The wailing mother, the destroyed house, the skull on the field, the girl soaked in napalm: Such images, if they were staged, would have you laughed out of an art gallery as a cheap purveyor of easy suffering. That photo of a boy sleeping by his parents’ grave looked pretty dumb when it was exposed as a work of so-called art. Yet as documents or at least traces of real suffering, an image as sentimental as that of Marwan can do real good: Not so much by telling the boy’s true story, which a photo can never properly capture, but by opening a portal onto an experience beyond our own, one that we cannot look away from in good conscience. 

It’s natural that the sentimentalism of an image such as Marwan’s raises our suspicions. We ask whether it has the ability to testify to real suffering. Fifty years of criticism that strove to analyze (or dismantle) the power of photography, by figures from Roland Barthes to Susan Sontag to John Berger, have taught us to be on our guard at such sentimental images, and from there either to seek the true story beyond the frame or to open a pack of Gauloises and aver that all war is a fiction. With the rise of the social web, though, and the ability to see misreadings and misrepresentations propagate in real time, war photography faces an even greater challenge: How can an image represent suffering when the very success of a photograph in circulating counts as evidence against its truth-value? If virality is more often than not the marker of a fiction, then how can we look at war photography in an ethical fashion when not only the photographic apparatus, but now also the networks via which photographs circulate, work against capturing reality? 

The answer, I’d argue, rests in the gap between the two Marwan captions: In a recognition that war photography can be more modest in its powers than presupposed without being a lie. Sontag, in On Photography (1977), maintained that “the knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism … a knowledge at bargain prices.” Such sentimental images, she claimed, end up working against the photographer’s intentions and diminish our sympathy or anger. By the end of her career, however, in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), she had changed her tune, or at least shifted its key. “That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical value of an assault by images,” she wrote. “It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. … Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.”

I’m with the later Sontag on this. War photographs are an index of suffering rather than a true representation, but that is enough. And accepting the role of emotion in photography, even if that emotion might be an easy sentimentalism, does not have to entail an abandonment of political commitment or an aesthetic naïveté. A photograph cannot tell a four-year-old refugee’s whole story, but to proclaim that photographs always lie and then leave it at that does not represent a major step forward in moral or philosophical sophistication. The far more sensible and more ethical strategy is to use photographs, with all their incompletion and inaccuracy, as a springboard to a deeper engagement with their subjects: In this case, a brutal and unceasing war that has forced 2.5 million Syrians to flee their homes and which is degrading into a disaster on par with those in Bosnia or Rwanda. Marwan might not be an orphan, but that doesn’t mean his story isn’t real.