The Dutch Media Drama

Why is a photo of an empathetic group of young Dutch Moroccans visiting a concentration camp being used to illustrate so many stories in which Moroccans are a "problem"?

The original photograph of Dutch youths of Moroccan descent at a World War II concentration camp.

Even though the Netherlands have a reputation for their tolerant attitude towards “immigrants,” more recently second and third generations immigrants are often accused of not being “integrated” enough. Like elsewhere in Europe, this accusation has fueled the rise of several right-wing parties.

For a while now, I have been fascinated by one image that is used in all kinds of Dutch news outlets to illustrate the “problem” with immigrants.

Elsevier, the Dutch weekly news magazine, uses the photograph often: for example, in a report on fighting “nuisance” by Moroccan youth in the inner city of Helmond, in a piece about tackling youth crime by the municipality of Amsterdam, in a piece on a remark by Hero Brinkman about Muslims, in a piece about psychological help for dysfunctional Moroccan families, in a report about criminal youth in an Amsterdam neighbourhood and in a blog post by Afshin Elian on criminal behavior among young Moroccans.

Another publication, the free newspaper “De Pers,” which no longer exist, also loved to use the image. There the image accompanied a report about twelve thousand children whose DNA profiles are kept in database, in a report that an imam believes conversion to Islam can be a solution for many problems of Moroccan “street terrorists”, and a report about homeless youth.

But that’s not all. Even the consultancy bureau BMC used the photograph in a report about troublesome youth in Amsterdam:

The same photo is on the cover of the journalist Fleur Jurgens’s book, “The Moroccan(s) Drama.” The photo was taken from a different angle but shows the same situation and the same moment.

Now, what are we looking at? Homeless youth? Criminal Moroccans? Moroccan families who need psychological help? Children whose DNA is kept in a database? Or maybe just Moroccan street terrorists?

If you look at the images closely, you see that some details tell a different story: the barbed wire in the foreground and a part of a barrack in the background.

When I see barbed wire and barracks, I immediately think of concentration or refugee camps. By typing in those words in the database of the ANP photo archive, I found the original photo. After reading the caption, I fell off my chair:

Some of the group of 350 Moroccan Dutch youths hide their faces on Monday as they listen to the story of a camp survivor during their visit to Camp Westerbork [a Dutch World War II transit camp used to assemble Roma and Dutch Jews for transport to the Nazi concentration camps]. Little is known about the military role that Moroccans have played during the Second World War or about their contribution to the liberation of the Netherlands.”

So what do we have here? Besides the youths’ background, nothing in the photograph has anything to do with the news the photo is used for. These are just guys listening to a camp survivor. Even if there has been some “noise” during the visit (see here and here), that’s not what is in the photo. (More photos of the visit can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and over at the photo agency Hollandse Hoogte.)

Why is this photo being used for so many different stories in which the “immigration problem” seems to play a role?

I can only speculate, but seems very likely that editors have an image in their mind when they write a news story. They then search for an image that matches that image. It is a logical process that I also regularly apply when I search for images to show during a lecture. I then also search for that one photo that best represents the image I have in mind. Chances are that I also occasionally show an image of something which is not what I think it represents. Everybody makes mistakes.

However, one would expect journalists to also ask themselves: What am I looking at? Or, at least these journalists should have read the caption that explains what is in the image. If they would have done so, nobody would ever have published this photograph in this context and, above all, this painful misuse of a photo could have been prevented.

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