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It’s that time of year again. The time when we step back and survey all we’ve accomplished over the past twelve months. And if nobody has noticed your deeds, you can either count yourself lucky or toot your own horn depending on what you’ve done. News outlets, in particular, make a point of publishing a list of their most stirring stories and photos. One of the gems that the Reuters organization is touting this year is a photo bearing the caption, “A Syrian refugee girl stands behind a door at a makeshift settlement…” If you lean in for a more in-depth look, you might get the impression that those words paint a pretty picture over a photo that seems to tell a whole other, perhaps more sinister, story.
Giving it the once over, you can easily make out what appears to be the thumb of another person wrapped around the subject’s right wrist along with a shadow to the left that would suggest she is being pushed up against the door. If that were the case, it would be a pretty apt metaphor to describe the plight of these poor people who have been pushed out of their homes and worse, but a completely different scenario than what the caption explains. When I spied the photo in my paper, the Japan Times (the caption there omits the word “girl”), I wondered why there wasn’t a horde of curious readers wading into the comment section below the online article demanding to know what exactly was going on in that picture. They say we see only what we want to see but maybe we see only what we are told to see. In this case the photo caption told us to see a refugee standing behind a door, nothing more.
There was something else about the photo that haunted me and I couldn’t seem to put my finger on it. Perhaps it was just that. It was an unseen, almost ghostly quality that continued to claw away at my sense of curiosity. It’s almost as if the head and shoulders attached to that mysterious hand clutching this girl’s wrist had been “disappeared” from our view. We see only what maybe looks like the face of fear. And it’s the same fear that has driven countless Syrians to flee for Europe and beyond where another face of fear in the form of intolerance often awaits them. I guess we do see what we’ve been told to see, and today, across the globe, we are being told by a chorus of hateful voices to expect the worst from these unfortunate souls fleeing for their lives.
For the life of me though, I still couldn’t figure out what face might be hidden in this particular picture. Luckily it caught the interest of the New York-based media watchdog site, iMediaethics, who focused its attention on getting to the bottom of the story behind the picture of this girl. In its report iMediaEthics notes that Reuters informed them “that the photo contained two girls — not just the one mentioned in the caption and that there were no Photoshop alterations to the image.” Even though iMediaethics still finds Reuter’s explanation a little fuzzy around the edges, it clears the picture up for me. The words beneath the photo tell a different story and that’s misleading at best, but the truth is there’s nothing sinister about the picture at all. The hidden face is that of a child, the face of innocence, the face of a refugee in need of help. Photos depicting Syrian refugees in desperate flight are a sight so familiar to the media landscape that they easily escape our gaze now. Perhaps no one saw the third thumb in that picture because we had already made up our minds about the girl in the frame. We can see what we want to see, or we can see what others tell us to see, but pictures don’t lie.