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An Instagram hoax about migrants got me good—and I’m so glad it did

Instagram: abdoudiouf1993

I’ve been hearing a lot about how more and more migrants from the Middle East and parts of Africa are risking life and limb to cross the Mediterranean and start new lives in Europe.

The numbers are overwhelming: So far this year, about 150,000 migrants have reached Europe by sea, fleeing war and poverty back home. At this rate, 2015 will absolutely shatter the all-time record set just last year—and 2014’s total was already a 266% percent increase over 2013.

And the treacherous journey keeps claiming more lives. Just yesterday, a boat carrying 600 migrants capsized off the coast of Libya. At least 25 people died, adding to the 2,000 lives lost so far this year.  

Suffice it to say, that’s a lot of desperate people in boats.

But facts and figures only go so far. The more I’ve learned about this growing crisis, the more I’ve found myself wanting to know. What must that journey actually be like? What do these people experience—and endure—along the way? Who are these migrants?

So when a friend shared a story from the Huffington Post about a migrant named Abdou who somehow managed to document his journey from Senegal to Spain on Instagram, I was instantly hooked.

Abdou starts out by documenting his preparations for the big trip: packing, getting a haircut, enjoying one last home-cooked meal (#yummy). His goal, he says, it to find a way to provide for his family.

Here he is snapping a farewell selfie with a young woman—his wife, judging from the hashtags.

#penthouse #family #weekend #happyfamily #bestdayever #love #willmissyou #daydreamers #african #senegal #dakar

A photo posted by Abdou Diouf (@abdoudiouf1993) on

Then the journey begins. Abdou and his companions must first head north to Morocco, where a boat to Spain awaits.

Getting to Morocco is no small feat. At one point, Abdou describes hiding in the trunk of a vehicle to avoid being seen during a border crossing.

Finally, under cover of darkness, Abdou boards a boat bound for Spain. He admits feeling “really scared.”

He makes it! The relief and joy on his face are infectious.

It doesn’t take long for local authorities to nab Abdou and company, however.

And there you have it. In just a few posts, Abdou managed to do what countless news articles could not: put a human face on the migrant crisis. His social media savvy made it possible for people everywhere to experience the soaring highs and crushing lows of the migrant journey.

The thing is... none of it was true.

As Buzzfeed explains, citing separate reports from a Spanish newspaper and photography blog, the whole thing turns out to have been a publicity stunt for a Spanish photography festival. “Abdou” is actually a handball player named Hagi Toure.

I guess I should have seen this coming. For starters, you’d think Abdou would have had bigger fish to fry than snapping a selfie while being tackled by the police.

But do you know what? I honestly couldn’t care less that this is all a hoax. Staged or not, the fact is that the journey of “Abdou” generated a ton of discussion about a really important issue. The Instagram account racked up 13,000 followers in a matter of weeks, and each post generated hundreds of comments. Though some commenters criticized Abdou for sneaking across borders—the migrant issue is currently a hot topic among Europeans who fear the influx of needy people—many more applauded him for his courage.

In the most recent post to the Abdou account, the folks running it had this to say about their project (words in brackets have been spell-checked for clarity):

“This Instagram [experience] was based on the real experience of thousands of people that every year risk their lives for a better future. To explore how we use social networks as a place to share [trip] images and [experiences] [depending] on who we are and why we are travelling. Showing that other realities exist and are closer than what we think.”

Showing that other realities exist. I love that. For me, that’s the power of photography, particularly on social media: to bridge the gap between “them” and “us” and help foster a greater appreciation for what our fellow humans are experiencing.

It may have been a little sneaky, but I’m a fan of this project and glad I got to know “Abdou,” if only for a little while.

Click here to learn more about the project, or watch a short trailer below.