The Curious Case of Instagram and the Fake Migrant

Abdou Diouf took 15 photographs and 1 video, documenting his migration from Senegal to Spain. He posted them on Instagram and went viral. Diouf racked up over 12,000 followers in a few days with hundreds of comments ranging from disbelief and scepticism to adoration and well-wishing. 

Source: Diouf's Instagram account

Source: Diouf's Instagram account

Hagi Toure is a professional European handball player who lives n Catalonia, Spain. His Instagram account is more modest in terms of followers, but features 173 photographs. 

Source: Toure's Facebook account, publicly available images

Source: Toure's Facebook account, publicly available images

Diouf and Toure are the same person.

No, this is not a feel-good story of a migrant overcoming poverty, exclusion and international borders to become a professional athlete in Europe. Depending on your perspective, this is either a damaging hoax or a subversive photographic project. 

Toure performs as Diouf in those 16 posts, leaving many feeling deceived. The BBC picked up the story, calling the account "a fake" and a "hoax". The deception was first revealed on disphotic, a blog from London College of Communication lecturer Lewis Bush. He sensed "something wasn't quite right". Bush and a colleague identified inconsistencies in the backgrounds and events of the images, and the name itself was apparently a clue. "Abdou Diouf" is also the name of one of Senegal's presidents, who is already being relegated on Google's search rankings. Bush and his colleague then examined Diouf's contact list and found Toure, comparing the facial features of each man. The culprit was found. Hagi Toure, in Catalonia, with an iPhone. 

It was later revealed that the account was promotion for the GETXOPHOTO festival in northern Spain. The festival "supports the exploration of formats, stands and unconventional exhibition spaces to show the different images." This particular project/promotion was intended to challenge viewers attitudes towards migrants coming into Europe. All the photographs for the account were taken with Toure around Barcelona on an iPhone in one day. 

There are two interesting notes about this to make. First, in the reactions to the revelation is an underlying current about truth and photographs. Actually there are two currents. One, is that photographs, generally, are indexical. That they represent a single, unproblematic reality. Two, that photographs also lie, be faked and manipulated.  However, these currents don't flow in and out, but run against and through one another like a whirlpool. No photograph is truly indexical, representative of reality. All are manipulated and controlled in some way by the photographer and the audience. There are many truths in photographs, some of which are given more value than others. 

"Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire" - Susan Sontag.

Sontag, in her seminal On Photography, made the above statement decades before smart phones enabled the mass production of photographed images. Instagram is a distribution centre and warehouse for millions and millions of miniature pieces of reality. Diouf's fictional journey and imagery of it may hold as much truth as a photojournalist's documentation of Eritrean asylum seekers' journey across the Mediterranean by boat. Both hold currency. 

Second, is the significance of how Diouf's images were produced and the truths they reveal. 15 of the 16 posts are selfies, shot on an iPhone. Each contains a flourish of hashtags, some ridiculous given to what they are referring. For example, in the image of three men including Diouf running in Morocco, the hashtags accompanying are #sport #runtoinspire #runforfuture #determination #effort #warrior #ultra 

Although Diouf may be a fictional character, performed by a professional athlete, how the story was told reflects a number of new conventions, language and mediums in visual storytelling. By turning the camera downward, towards himself, Diouf wanted to exist; to share his journey with anyone on Instagram. I selfie, therefore, I exist. We, in turn, wanted Diouf to exist. For the audience, the burden of proof was Diouf's/Toure's. It was not on us to critically examine his claims. 

However, it should. Recently, a number of organisations and blogs celebrated the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou. A number of images aggregated from this hashtag were not of the countries they proported to show. Images of Peru, Australia and even stock photographs were manipulated to represent countries like Senegal and Djibouti. Yet, some argued that it didn't really matter, as the purpose of the campaign was to change people's attitudes towards Africa. Sound familiar?