The widespread ownership of camera equipped mobile phones and the rise of social media platforms like Instagram can seem to offer us a direct window into lives very far from our own. Through these portals we can peer into the private world of a celebrity, a president, or even a migrant making the dangerous journey from West Africa to Europe. Yesterday evening saw a burst of online interest in an account apparently belonging to a Senegalese migrant named Abdou Diouf, who had documented his dangerous journey first on foot through the North African Desert and then across the Mediterranean by rowing boat to Spain. However these photographs are very far from what they seem, and all that Abdou Diouf’s account really reveals are the perils of taking social media accounts at face value, as some news outlets like the Huffington Post did.
My friend and colleague Amin Musa encountered Abdou Diouf’s account last week and sensing something wasn’t quite right with the photographs Amin started to dig deeper into them. We later came together to discuss them and we both began to identify a range of inconsistences, from the backgrounds in some of the photographs to the events they purported to depict. Some of these inconsistencies even feel a little like they were left there to be found. ‘Abdou Diouf’ for example is the name of one of Senegal’s better known presidents. Digging through Diouf’s contact list, Amin identified the actual name of the man in the photographs as Hagi Toure, who has his own Instagram page here (a close comparison of this photograph from Toure’s account and this one from Diouf’s offers fairly convincing evidence that they are one and the same).
Many questions emerge out of this account, but two in particular stand out strongly for me. The first is about the motivations of Toure and his collaborators, and the implications of setting up this account at a time when migration into Europe is such a current, controversial, and tragic topic. It’s easy to feel that the intention of this account are basically benign. It seems constructed to engender sympathy for the plight of migrants, putting us into their shoes through a platform we are all familiar with. The recognisable medium and language of Instagram (grain, blur, selfies, et al) makes ‘Abdou Diouf’ feel less like a faceless embodiment of a nebulous crisis, and more like someone we might know, someone who we might follow, someone whose photographs we might even ‘like’. He could be one of our friends, it could even one of us taking that shaky photograph on a raft half way across the pitch black Med.
But does the fact we might sympathise with the motivations behind these photographs make the deception taking place any less problematic? I think not. Because those discovering that the account isn’t genuine may find it contaminates the way they view the topic of migration as a whole, and particularly the way they view those arguing that Europeans need to show greater humanity towards people seeking to travel here. If an account like this is fake, where does that leave other bits of evidence of the hardships and dangers migrants face at home and during their odysseys to Europe? When the subject at hand is as important as this even well intentioned deceptions can be as damaging as the most malign campaigns of disinformation, something I’ve discussed here before.
The second question this account brings to mind is about our readiness to believe the things that what we (and I pointedly include journalists in this) encounter on social media, to accept them at face value and without prolonged scrutiny or consideration. This seems particularly common where what we encounter appears to confirm much of what we already believe, or is something we want to see. The journey depicted here fits has all the hallmarks of the type of stories reported daily in the press, of arduous journeys across deserts, of corrupt people smugglers, of treacherous sea crossings only to be confronted by indifferent police officers and internment. I had for a while been wondering if we would ever see photographs from a migrants perspective, and when I first encountered ‘Abdou Diouf’ I was fascinated. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who looks for news and stories on social media, a reminder to keep in mind the old adage that if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.
There is also a much wider issue of the lack of engagement with visual sources online, an unwillingness to submit photographs to even the most cursory examinations. Many people, even those who work regularly with photography, still readily resort to lazy assumptions about what the visual language of photography means without further interrogation (much as many people resort to lazy shorthand ‘facts’ about issues like migration). The belief for example that images of compromised quality like those often shared on Instagram must hold some higher truth value than the consciously constructed images of photojournalists seems strikingly common. Those people and organisations who systematically set aside these assumptions in order to examine photographs without prejudice are precious few, and faced as we are with a glut of imagery it becomes an ever harder act for the rest of us to emulate.
Whether Toure and the others behind these photographs intended to provoke discussion of the plight of migrants, or simply wanted to bask in the glow of an online click storm remains to be seen. ‘Abdou Diouf’ for his part might only be a fiction, but there will be people out there now whose lived experiences echo his story. So much is at stake for these people, and so great is the controversy and division in Europe over their future that we can’t allow viewpoints and decisions about migration to be shaped by works of imagination. Whether as consumers or producers of news we need to look online with an ever more questioning eye, to remember that just as often as photographs can be compelling windows on a world that actually exists, they can all too easily be mirrors of fiction that we each desperately want to believe in.
Update #1 16.30 GMT, August 3rd 2015 – The Huffington Post have just published an update revealing that these photographs were not what they claimed to be, but rather part of a promotional campaign for a photography exhibition with ‘travel’ as it’s theme. ‘…the account was actually set up by a Spanish advertising agency for a photography exhibition, and Toure – an aspiring handball player who lives in Spain – posed for the photos as an actor. Tomás Peña, one of the directors of the project, shot all the photos in and around Barcelona with his iPhone in a single day. He spoke to HuffPost UK and explained he wanted to “change perceptions”.’ To me this poses as many new questions as it answers existing ones, questions which I will write on in the coming days.
Update #2 10.30 GMT, August 4th 2015 – I’ve published a follow up piece here which adds some new information about the reasons for creating the account and questions both the practices of the marketeers involved in making it and the response of many of the journalists who reported it.