Have you seen this photograph?
I saw it for the first time the other day when Carla Young from Momeo Magazine posted it on facebook. She was sharing a post from the Trinikid facebook page that had the photo along with a description that read:
"An Iraqi girl in an orphanage - missing her mother, so she drew her and fell asleep inside her."
Oh my heart.
It grabbed me immediately and it obviously did the same to other people, since it has more than 28,000 shares on facebook.
Almost immediately after posting it, Carla added a comment noting that she had heard the photo was created by a photographer, but that it is still a great way to shed light on a problem.
So it was a staged photo. That completely changed the meaning for me. I know that in this day and age of the Internet, and especially since I've been on the Internet for 22 years now, I should know not to take things at face value. But it grabbed me and then I felt betrayed that it was staged, but presented as photo journalism.
I started to do some research on the picture. I found another version that said that the little girl had never seen her mother, so she drew a mother and fell asleep inside her (variation on missing her mother, who she had presumably met and cuddled with at some point). I also found another picture of a boy curled up in the arms of a chalk drawing of his mother with a similar story and then a reader comment saying it was part of a public service announcement in Iraq.
Then, I found what is presumably the true source of the photo. Bharesh Bisheh, an Iranian photograper, posted the picture on her flickr account. In the comments, she explained:
This little girl is my cousin and she actually fell asleep on the asphalt just outside my house. She must have played for some time and just lied to rest and fell asleep. im used a chair to stand on in order to take this shot. There is no orphanage involved and no tragic story behind this. i took this opportunity to be creative.
It is a style of photography
You can use my photos in your webblag If you mention my name as the photographer of this photo.
thanks to all for the consideration.
The comments on the flickr page include references to numerous uses of the photo, with various stories and in various campaigns. It was apparently even used in an anti-gay marriage campaign in Croatia.
They say that a picture is worth a 1000 words. There are often contests to find a caption for a funny picture. But what happens when we take someone else's picture and use it to tell our 1000 words? What happens when we come up with a caption that is not just a twist on reality, but an outright lie?
There are millions of orphans in Iraq who have their own stories. Surely those are compelling enough that there is no need to steal an Iranian photographer's photo and give it a heart-tugging but untrue story? And even if this photo was staged instead of being stolen, would that be any better? Development organizations and journalists that work with children are asked to follow guidelines on ethical reporting. A common thread in these guidelines is "No staging: Do not ask children to tell a story or take an action that is not part of their own history."
Before I went to Bangladesh with Save the Children, I was advised on the types of photographs that are appropriate and inappropriate in the context of the work that I was doing there. Generally, I had no problem being able to take compelling pictures that told the story of the things I was learning about without having to stage anything. Where possible, I asked people perm ission to take their picture. When they said no, I respected it. I took the time to speak to them when I could to ensure I wasn't assigning a story to the picture that was inaccurate.
There are so many children, so many people, around the world with compelling stories. I want to give my attention and my heart to those stories, not to a fabrication based on a stolen or staged photograph.
What do you think? Beyond the obviously wrong stealing of the picture in this instance, do you think it is okay to stage a picture, assign it a story, and pass it off as the truth?