Saudi photographer tells me: This is not Syria, its not a grave and the boys parents are not dead

17 Jan

By Harald Doornbos

There’s a big chance you have seen this dramatic picture of a Syrian boy covered by a blanket sleeping between the two graves of his dead parents. It went viral after some big accounts published it yesterday on twitter.


There is only one problem: The picture is not from Syria, but from Saudi Arabia.

Frankly, there are more problems regarding the picture: Because there are no bodies in the graves either.

And the graves are not graves but piles of stones made to look like graves.

And the sad sleeping boy did not lose his parents at all. He is the little son of the photographers’ sister, who made these pictures as part of an art project.

The photographer is twenty five year old Saudi national Abdul Aziz al Otaibi. I decided to call him and ask for his comments. And sure – he is pretty annoyed by all of it.

“Look, it’s not true at all that my picture has anything to do with Syria,” Al-Otaibi says, “I am really shocked how people have twisted my picture.”

I talked to Al-Otaibi over the phone via an interpreter. He is in the town of Yanbu al Bahr (Spring by the Sea) in Saudi Arabia, where he is a keen photographer. In the meantime, I am in southern Turkey, on the border with Syria.

“I love photography,” he continues over the phone, “Every artist has ideas in his head. So I had the idea to make a project whereby I show in pictures how the love of a child for his parents is irreplaceable. This love cannot be substituted by anything or anybody else, even if the parents are dead.”

To finalize his art project, Abdul Aziz al Otaibi took his car and drove three weeks ago to the outskirts of Yanbu, 250 kilometers away from Jeddah. Here he build from stones two graves. He asked the young son of his sister to lay in between the graves and cover himself with a blanket. “Of course I would never ever put a child between two real graves,” he says, “I would be very much against that.”

During the first week of January he posted the pictures of his art project on face book. Initially there was not a lot of response. Al-Otaibi made it very clear on Facebook that the graves weren’t real and that there were no bodies in it. He even published pictures of the little son of his sister smiling next to the “graves”. Al-Otaibi: “I also published the backstage story. I just wanted to be sure that people drew no wrong conclusions.” (see pic below)

Screenshot 2014-01-17 14.49.00

But exactly that is what happened when American Muslim convert @americanbadu publishes on his twitter the picture of the boy sleeping between the two graves. In his tweet @americanbadu  – who lives in Saudi Arabia – claims the picture is from Syria and suggests the dead parents of the boy were killed by the Assad-regime. @americanbadu has over 187 thousand followers on twitter.

Within minutes hundreds of accounts re-tweet @americanbadu’s picture and his Syria caption. Especially in jihadi circles the image spreads like wildfire. For example, an Islamic NGO from Kuwait tweets the image to their 175.000 followers on @Yathalema.

Shortly after, Western tweeps also begin noticing the dramatic picture. They too put it on twitter and Facebook.

By now the picture goes viral. Nobody checks if the image was indeed from Syria. I was the first reporter who called Al-Otaibi to ask.

In the meantime, photographer Al-Otaibi complains via Direct Message (DM) to @americanbadu. He asks the American convert: “Why did you take my picture and claim it is an image from Syria? Please correct it.”

@americanbadu’s reply in DM was the following:

“Why don’t you just let go and claim it is a picture from Syria and gain a reward from God. You are exaggerating.”

Shortly after this, @americanbadu removed his tweet. But the damage was already done and irreversible.

Al-Otaibi told me over the phone he is upset about the incident. “I Am really very annoyed by this,” he says, “It is just not fair to take one of my photos totally out of context and use it for your own propaganda.”

End text

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