The exchange rate for pictures has remained constant at 1,000 words since the invention of the medium, but in the era of Twitter it’s spiked up to about 1,140. That surplus is crucial in defining the context in which we understand what photos actually mean. You’ll recall the widely-shared photo of the Syrian orphan boy sleeping between the graves of his parents from last month that turned out to have been a staged art project.
On Sunday we got another glimpse into the life of another such boy when Andrew Harper of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tweeted this photo:
Here 4 year old Marwan, who was temporarily separated from his family, is assisted by UNHCR staff to cross #Jordan pic.twitter.com/w4s2mrNnMY
— Andrew Harper (@And_Harper) February 16, 2014
A revealing enough picture on its own. But Harper’s qualifying context, presenting the boy as “temporarily separated from his family” didn’t read as sufficiently tragic enough.
The next day CNN’s Hala Gorani shared the photo, omitting a few words, thereby heightening its emotional resonance, and, not coincidentally, boosting its viral potential:
UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing #Syria. pic.twitter.com/YdCt7gZrcN
— Hala Gorani (@HalaGorani) February 17, 2014
You can probably guess what happened from there. “4 Year Old Boy Found Wandering Desert Alone,” read dozens of headlines and thousands of tweets.
The problem is, the boy wasn’t a solo traveler, as Harper pointed out yesterday in follow-up tweets. The Guardian‘s Shiv Malik also made note of the details:
@HalaGorani Erm UNHCR just told me his family was 20 steps ahead of him.
— Shiv Malik (@shivmalik1) February 17, 2014
He was merely straggling a bit behind a much larger group of refugees, about 1,000 of whom crossed from Syria to Jordan that day alone, according to the BBC. Millions have fled from Syria since the outbreak of civil war in March of 2011.
But you know what they say: Millions of refugees are a statistic, one single boy is a tragedy.
Luke O’Neil is a self-loathing journalist and blogger in Boston whose work has appeared in Esquire, Slate, The New Republic and many others. Follow him on Twitter (@lukeoneil47).
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