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The Meaning Behind a Photo: Children, Photo Journalism, and Social Good Campaigns

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.

-- Bharesh Bisheh on flickr

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?

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Reader Comments (32)

I'm interested in this question Annie, although I won't pretend to have an answer. To me, this is the far end of a spectrum that also includes things like post-production and photoshopping - how "true" does an image have to be? How important is reality if the end goal - in this case, engaging people to think about or talk about the cause, I suppose - is met?

In this case, I do agree that the misrepresentation is inappropriate - in fact, it sounds like an outright fabrication. But I'm not sure I'd be so offended by a staged photo that tells a story, as long as the photographer/storyteller was completely honest about the set-up.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniGirl

I think I agree with you, there are enough stories, enough good pictures, etc, that one should use the ones that are true to your specific story. When you try to pass off something as fact (attaching a particular story to a particular photo), and then someone finds out it's false, it taints the whole story. Even if the rest of it is honest and good and true, it loses some of its meaning and the author/organization behind it loses credibility. If you lie about a picture, what else may you be lying about as well, right? Why risk losing that credibility when you are trying to do something good?

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

Hi there! As a journalist I thought I would chime in and share the "professional" side of this issue. In certain types of journalism, such as the orphanage story, it is entirely appropriate to use what in the business is called a "photo illustration" which is either a staged photo, a compilation of two or more photos or one that has been altered in Photoshop to evoke a certain message. However, you are completely correct in that it should be CLEARLY labeled as such. Also, ethically, I am certain that the correct approach in the orphanage story would be to use a photo illustration as it would be insensitive to publish a "true" photo of the girl missing her mother. But, as I said, it needs to be clearly identified as a "representation" and not a true photo. Hope that helps!

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGuest

I agree with you that staging a photograph and passing off the story as true is wrong. It's a lie. Lying is not right. But, you can create works of ART that tell a story, as long as you let people know it is a work of Fiction, at least in part. And it is never OK to steal a photo, share with attribution and permission.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAron Hele Forhuden

That's just disturbing. And wrong. But I do see it every single day (to a lesser degree, perhaps) in the mainstream media. Somebody in a newsroom chooses an image to go with a story and that choice is always subjective. The photo is selected to illicit a response, based on the chooser's bias.
And that's disturbing too.

January 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam Dillon

I was amazed by this photo, very cute to look at but to deepen your mind this is a touching story a child longing for a mom's hug... teary eyed

February 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterH. Campbell

Beautiful picture, however after reading your post it makes me realize how we have to be critical consumers of what we see online, and teacher our children to be critical thinkers when it comes to online media. Thank - you for sharing the true story.

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterimhereshesthere blog

I don't think taking a picture and staging a story is acceptable. I would feel angry at being duped as well. That being said, we are teaching our kids to be critical about what they find on the Internet. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to practice what we preach. But perhaps it was also effective in facilitating dialogue....

Great post! I think that this is so relevant, especially because sensationalized media tends to attach photos to articles that aren't even from the same context or time period. Consequently, a lot of people may be persuaded to believe things that are just not true. I also think that things like Jimmy Kimmel's social media pranks show just how social media can escalate so quickly and promote false truths. It also indicates that maybe the public may be too quick to believe certain stories, especially if these stories pull at the heart strings. This was especially apparent in the mass social media frenzy when the KONY 2012 video popped up on Facebook two years ago. I remember seeing all of my friends so passionate about the cause. Days later, it turns out that the KONY video was somewhat of a scam, promoting an organization that had murky hidden agendas. I think that from that whole experience, I learned that if I truly feel passionate about a cause, it's probably a cause that is worth a lot of time, research, and personal dedication.

February 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Fan

Absolutely wrong. You used to be able to consume "journalism" and news from friends of friends as likely to be true information, but you can't anymore. Now anyone forwards anything and fake news or research outlets are extremely popular. I don't care if it is for a social good if it's fabricated. There are plenty of causes that appear to be good but upon checking are either not good or even harmful. You investigate some of these yourself. They run the gamut from making up news outright, to taking real events or studies and misrepresenting them or biasing them, to simple marketing campaigns for generating clicks/views with seductive headlines and emotionally charged content, to incompetence wrapped up in professionalism. Horrible and toxic, and the sad thing is, many people fall for it and their brains are washed. Who wouldn't be if they saw that orphan? Then you go to the site and get sucked in to other content and before you know it they are converted into supporting some fake cause or opposing another based on only very very superficial knowledge if any correct knowledge at all. Liars or fabricators at any level cannot be tolerated.

April 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex | Perfecting Dad

If the caption, or description, makes it crystal clear how the picture came about, I am ok with it. I do worry about photoshop, etc. being used to lie to the public about what is going on in world events. With only five corporations owning all of the major news sources now, it seems only a matter of time before violence is beget through altered pictures and news clips. In this drawing, anyone who was familiar with the developmental art of children would know immediately that a child did not create the chalk drawing. The proportions would have been very different and unstable from side to side. Also, look at the scarf knotted at the neck, vs. the stick arms and legs and the eyes that are just dots.

November 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPenny

I'm with you. It makes me feel betrayed too if it evokes an emotion and then turns out to be staged. I'd much rather know it was a staged 'message.' I would still have been moved as it's a very powerful video/ photo but without that feeling of being tricked. I don't like it as it makes me feel sceptical of other genuine stories that you hear about. Thank you for sharing.

November 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

Okay, author, you have made a good point, then twisted your question to frame and direct a narrative just like those who stole this Iranian woman's picture in the first place. This is an insidious type of modern propaganda, and you have done it. If I am to take everything you wrote as fact, you just told me some photographer in Iran took the photo with no intention to make any particular political statement other than the suggestion of a child in a fetal position inside her mother's womb. Creative. Poignant. Apolitical.

SOMEONE ELSE stole this image and used it to illicit a strong emotional response from unsuspecting observers like yourself no doubt to trick you into joining a movement or at the very least to gain your emotional support of something perhaps you would or would not support under ordinary circumstances. It is a trick.

The question you should have asked given this context is: Is it okay to steal a photograph (the intellectual property of a photographer), assign it a story (fiction), and pass it off as truth? My answer would be a resounding hell no! In this situation, no one "staged" a picture, and with the way your question was articulated, you let the unscrupulous picture thief off the hook. Answering your question at face value as written, however, my answer would still be hell no. There is no such thing as honorable lying. Thank you for attempting to debunk this photo.

December 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris C

I think what you have written here is a non-story, it is essentially about yourself and your small experience some time ago in non-profit work. It is unseemly for a journalist to be self congratulatory, or at least immature. The real story is the public reaction to the image as it was presented in various contexts, which you missed entirely.

February 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCherrimae

Your question is ironic because that is the very definition of advertising in print. It also can be the definition of artistic interpretation. If this photo was really a painting, then no one would assume there was a real child in pain, but the message may still be conjured in someone's heart as their emotional response to a visual image/story conveyed by an artist. Photo journalism can also be seen as art subject to interpretation. The caption just influences what message is received

February 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKfabq

All the writers above have made me think. I feel the power of the image as a work of art is profound. It visually captures the grief and emptiness. I agree, that put simply, the observer needs to know it is an interpretation... So they don't feel duped. Then we can look at it as an interpretation rather than journalism. But I also feel artistic representation can be just as powerful as journalism... In a different way.

February 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterK.page

It is ourright betrayal of the truth. If such manipulation be accepted, where do we draw the line. If it can be staged for something good then it can be done for bad intentions too. Lets uphold the truth even it hurts.

March 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRomney

This photo incites revulsion for the US/UK invasion of Iraq. Is it not possible that the intelligence agencies of these countries created a false story that this picture has nothing to do with orphanage or the dead mother of the girl?

March 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMark

actually I saw another vision , a Chinese child draw a figure of mom on the floor, and laying down in her arm for comforting, it was posted on a web page of a children-caring project , and said something like ''' a left-behind'' child in rural china, looking forward the reunion with her parents'. 'left-behind child' indicate the child whose parents are working in the big cities and left their child taken care by their grandparents. I work in early years, I am not interested to the so-called truth or the initiative motivation of the picture, but I hate people using kids to complete their initiatives. and what's fun of copying that and forcng children to do something they do not even understand?

March 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMao

The picture tells us one thing loud and clear " we have created enough orphans in Vietnam, Hiroshima, Iraq and more places for oil or political gains but in the name of spreading freedom. Lies we got on weapons of mass destruction and blah blah have to stop. We want now to be more critical of REAL intent of going to wars and creating more orphans. We have to stop creating orphans in the name of spreading freedom.

March 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMax

This image evokes a sense of loss. There are thousands of orphans that must feel such loss. The photo may be staged, but, if it makes you THINK about orphans, both in foreign countries as well as those here in the US, it, therefore, has a deeper meaning and hopefully it will affect someone enough to actually take action to help a child that is in need.

March 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMia

Thank you, Mia, that was well said.
The source of this photo doesn't interest me as much. Yes, the child in the picture maybe did not feel so alone, lost and forsaken as the facebook post would have us believe.
But its picture is now giving a voice to those who would -for the most part- go utterly unnoticed.

March 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterXiluva

To mislead in any way, whether for good or negative reasoning is simply wrong. Show the photo; it IS cute, but give the true origins. We will soon reach a point where we have a raised brow for anything presented to us in a compelling manner. What if one day an image is true and it is the only chance of reaching out, that they have? We will have completely glossed over a horrifying event because we have become inured to these types of imagery.

March 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMarty

Ridiculous. This is no different than advertising. The picture and story make and important point. Until I saw the photo, how many times did
I even think of those or any orphans. None. I'm not a bad person but plenty busy. How many times have you taken a picture and just somehow missed the mark of perfection? Most? As long as the photo credit speaks the truth, let it go. O

March 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

As a veteran art teacher, it was obvious to me this child did not draw this picture. Children this age draw the face of their mother, who talks to them. They draw the arms they are held with and the feet they are carried with. Their mothers body has no significance at this stage in their development. The photographers creation was clever and creative however not convincing.

March 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Bonsack

The Art of Adoption: its origin does not change the meaning. It represents truth for many.

April 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterQ

Thank you for clarifying the origin of that photo - I was sad for two days before I researched and found this article. Although there are so many orphans who really miss their parents which is as sad as life can get, it helps to know that that particular photo was staged. I am for a clear differentiation between art and journalism. However, if this picture and the added lie helps only one little iraqui girl the lie is worth being told.

May 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

The photo was creative and tells tons about the photographer and the child too. It is unusual to see a child curl in this fetal position in the middle of a road. That fetal position (which by itself has a million meanings) is what triggered the mother frame (as a secure reference).
Why would the child taker her shoes off too???
All the stories dont add up if you put them together.
But the picture speaks for zillio s of children and adults who lost their moms and that's it's real value

August 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBH

I agree that it is wrong to stage a photo but the question for me is why? Why do we need to do it? Is it to get past our apathy, to make us "do" something to change these circumstances? Why do we respond to children in need but remain untouched by a photo of an adult?

September 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBelinda

This photo touches home for me. I'm a foster parent. While everyone overthinks the rhyme or reason for this photo, I sit with 2 orphans right here in my livingroom. On a daily basis I wipe tears created from loss and trauma. There's more to life than analyzing anything and everything you see. In the whole spectrum of life, what the heck does it matter if staged, not staged, stolen or just authentic? Does it really hurt your precious feelings that bad. I mean really. Everytime I see this picture I see one of my real life babies that lay in bed at night shedding many tears and they close their eyes to imagine that my fingers running through their hair is really their Mommy's. It's real y'all and in the 32 children's lives that have come through my home it's more real than they deserve. I challenge the people that have focused on debating the origin of this photo to put your time energy to helping spread awareness to the ever growing problem that these children face on a daily basis.

April 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Pam, I just got this picture, I have to agree with you. Picture might be true or fake. The important thing is, how we react with the orphan or those in need around us. THEY need us to help them get through this ruthless corrupted world. I myself repost this picture to other group, not to argue the originality of this picture but to trigger the awareness to our friends that there are ORPHANS around us that need to be help.

November 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIna

"staged" to me implies that the photo was meant to be misinterpreted, particularly in the context of a post about it being misinterpreted. which of course is not the case. this fellow just wanted to take an interesting picture. now I wouldn't normally choose to be so pedantic, but, since you've decided to devote this post to chiding journalists—even though the only "journalist" you've mentioned is Carla Young from Momeo Magazine, who you said yourself immediately corrected her mistake… I'm a bit confused as to who your ire is directed at, and what point you're trying to make

images are misused and go viral everyday on social media every day. likely the only person who was aware this picture was not what it was being sold as, is the person who invented the story. almost certainly to generate traffic to their page or site. there is no epidemic of journalists willfully choosing to misuse viral images of this kind. but if you acknowledged that you wouldn't get to brag about how much better you are, and what great work you do. god forbid you do something and not get credit for it, right? better to just invent a an imaginary scenario and imply the photographer knowingly deceived people. and if you don't know that the word "staged" carries that kind of implication, you probably shouldn't be using it

August 8, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterodibex

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