War photographs are an index of suffering rather than a true representation, but that is enough. And accepting the role of emotion in photography, even if that emotion might be an easy sentimentalism, does not have to entail an abandonment of political commitment or an aesthetic naïveté. A photograph cannot tell a four-year-old refugee’s whole story, but to proclaim that photographs always lie and then leave it at that does not represent a major step forward in moral or philosophical sophistication. The far more sensible and more ethical strategy is to use photographs, with all their incompletion and inaccuracy, as a springboard to a deeper engagement with their subjects: In this case, a brutal and unceasing war that has forced 2.5 million Syrians to flee their homes and which is degrading into a disaster on par with those in Bosnia or Rwanda. Marwan might not be an orphan, but that doesn’t mean his story isn’t real.
The Syrian Orphan in That Viral Photo Wasn't Actually an Orphan, But It Doesn't Matter
He was a synecdoche, a means of coming to terms with an unfathomable humanitarian disaster and not necessarily a distraction from that disaster’s realities. That Marwan was not what he seemed to be, that he was a refugee but not an orphan, is obviously regrettable. But the force of the image did not derive from the caption; it is the larger disaster that the image evokes, with the correct caption as much as the incorrect one, that gives it power.^