newspaper boxes
Credit: Rusty Clark/Flickr

While combing through my archive of images to illustrate my ongoing series about Congo on my Substack, Chills, I came across a photograph a colleague took when we were at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in May 2013. About 150,000 Syrians were estimated to be temporarily living there at the time. I was working on a story about rape in the Syria conflict, although that day I ended up documenting the wedding of a 15-year-old girl taking place in the desert.

The photo shows me interviewing a refugee at the camp. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like…

In this era of “fake news,” everything we do as journalists is targeted by somebody as such. Things are so out of control that I’ve had Trump supporters resort to simply calling me “fake news.” Me, not the outlets I work for or the stories I write.

Solid journalists show you their sources, but disinformation still rules the day. It is the currency of people willing to offer falsehoods to further their political points, taking advantage of media illiteracy in the United States.

Take, for example, this instance in June 2020, in which Fox News digitally manipulated photos to make Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone appear to be violent and frightening when in reality it was mostly peaceful. The images helped make the zone “a political flashpoint for conservatives nationally and a target of tweets by President Donald Trump, who has branded the demonstrators ‘domestic terrorists’ and threatened federal action unless local officials ‘take back’ the area,” wrote The Seattle Times.

Outright instances of photoshopping have become more prevalent than ever (especially on social media, which then tends to confuse journalists). But I’ve been thinking about that photo taken at Zaatari because of something equally or more insidious within the media.

Sometimes an image is real, but readers don’t know what they’re looking at until a caption tells them. Yet captions can mislead. For instance, I could say in a caption for my photo: “This is me interviewing a refugee at Zaatari.”

But that would be a lie.

In reality, this photo shows me talking to my fixer, a well-off Jordanian woman who lived in the capital, Amman. An average reader would have no way of knowing that.

Look closer.

Do you see how white her headscarf is? The camp’s ubiquitous dirt makes keeping anything white a near impossibility. No refugee wore a backpack—or jeans or sunglasses for that matter—in the camp. Also, women generally stayed in their tents for safety. Most of the women I met wouldn’t leave their houses because they were traumatized and fearful of their new surroundings. Only men and children were really out and about.

On top of that, the photo shows a paved road and a cool temperature. However, it was taken as the sun was setting and belies the fact that it was actually in the 90s during the day, and we sweated for many hours in the desert heat. Paved roads do exist, but most of the camp was just dirt with sewage water running throughout. Some toilets were filthy holes in the ground in dirty, closet-like cabins. People were crammed into stifling tents.

Zaatari was not a pleasant place overall. People were enduring what they had to in order to make it to the next phase of their lives, wherever and whenever that would be.

Here is what it really looked like on the day I was there, for the most part.

These photos give more of a sense of the conditions—the heat and uncovered wastewater, and how women and girls really dress.

The reason I am writing this post is because I want you to be better informed about the choices journalists make.

I could have published the first photo with a misleading caption or no caption at all, and implied that everything at the camp was clean and ordered, and that people were living in (relative) comfort, when truly, people were living in fear and hunger.

When looking at images, you have to consider what publication you’re reading, and whether that outlet has an agenda. In this case, maybe a right-wing outlet would want to show how Syrians are living well and “off the backs of others” as part of their case to turn refugees back to their countries.

Then there’s the famous case of O.J. Simpson on the cover of two magazines. Newsweek ran the photo straight. Time added dramatic shading, which may have influenced how readers viewed his guilt. (Never mind the apparent racism and two damning headlines.)

There are so many ways to twist what you’re looking at.

Consider that right now. I could just as easily have convinced you that the first photo truly shows how clean and ordered Zaatari was. I could have made the case that no one was suffering there, there were paved roads, everything was hygienic, and women were able to keep clean and walk around during the day.

But I didn’t do that, and I wouldn’t. Neither would many journalists. But many is not all: Keep your eyes open.

(This story originally appeared in Chills, Wolfe’s new Substack. Photos courtesy of Wolfe)

Lauren Wolfe

Follow Lauren on Twitter @Wolfe321. Lauren Wolfe, a Washington Monthly contributing writer, is an award-winning journalist and the author of Chills, a Substack newsletter. She is also a professor at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.