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What’s the real story behind this 'perfectly timed' photo of a UN peacekeeper?

Turns out, this photo of a UN peacekeeper posing in front of a sign to form the phrase “uninvolved in peace” was staged.
Turns out, this photo of a UN peacekeeper posing in front of a sign to form the phrase “uninvolved in peace” was staged. © Chad Henning / FCB Cape Town for Die Burger

"A perfectly timed photo," is what those sharing this photograph of a United Nations peacekeeper have been saying for the past decade. The peacekeeper's blue helmet – with the inscription "UN" – is perfectly aligned to negate the meaning of the phrase printed on a promotional poster in the background. But the image, used by many to indict the international governing body’s involvement in conflict zones, is actually a staged 2007 ad campaign from a South African newspaper. Our team spoke to the photographer.

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The peacekeeper in the photo is standing next to a poster, bearing the UN logo, that says "involved in peace." But there's just one problem: the "UN" on the man’s helmet turns the sentence into “uninvolved in peace.”

This uncanny photo has been circulating for over a decade. In that time, people have linked it to a number of different conflicts, all around the world, as a way to criticise the UN’s role and condemn them for not doing enough to protect civilians. A social media user from Myanmar, for example, shared the photo, saying that it was the “best coincidence ever.” Another person shared it amidst the conflict between Israel and Palestine last May. Another social media user shared the photo back in 2012, but this time saying the UN was "uninvolved in Africa."

On May 26, someone posted the photo on Twitter, without a caption. It was shared more than 780 times, mostly by people tweeting with the hashtag #FreePalestine. 

However, our team ran this photo through a reverse image search (click here to find out how). We quickly found a larger version of the photo with a detail in the bottom right hand corner that doesn’t appear in the versions circulating online: a logo representing a newspaper that says "Die Burger" and the phrase "Get talking." The phrase in this photo is slightly different, as well. Instead of reading "uninvolved in peace," it reads "uninvolved in Africa."

This is a screengrab showing the original campaign photographed by Chad Henning for FCB Cape Town in South Africa.
This is a screengrab showing the original campaign photographed by Chad Henning for FCB Cape Town in South Africa. © Flickr Peter Casier / Chad Henning for FCB Cape Town

It turns out that the photo is actually from an ad campaign run by the South African daily newspaper in Afrikaans "Die Burger" in December 2007. South African photographer Chad Henning took the photo for the agency FCB Cape Town, which is run by artistic director Anthony de Klerk.

Chad Henning
Photographer
Cape Town, South Africa

The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the photographer, Chad Henning, to find out more about the ad campaign that generated this photo.  

The original brief was for a local newspaper in Cape Town. It was a campaign designed [to address] current and topical issues meant to stimulate debate. The shots were set up and produced to look like photojournalism. The tagline of the images was “Praat saam” which means "Let’s talk."

Henning also shared other examples of the ad campaign with our team, for example, one showing soldiers setting up an oil well that parodied the famous photo of soldiers raising the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. Another showed African rebels posing on the front of a ship like in the film "Titanic," as if they were celebrating their freedom. 

In 2008, the photo parodying the scene at Iwo Jima and the photo of the UN peacekeeper both won Epica Awards, honouring creativity in ad campaigns. 

Chad Henning added:

It’s important to remember that when we took this photo, we weren’t really thinking about or using social media and so we didn’t think of the possibility that it would be manipulated. But it’s true that, at the time, there was already the perception that the UN wasn’t very interested in getting involved in places without money, especially in Africa. So there definitely was a provocative element to this campaign.  

There’s part of me that thinks – if people are still sharing my photo in 2021, and believing that it is real – then maybe I did my job right. But there’s another part of me that isn’t happy to see that the photo has been modified [Editor’s note: in the recent photos that have circulated, the word "Africa" was replaced by the word “peace”]. And, I think it would be impossible for me to actually monetise these images at this point. What’s certain is that the money I got for this campaign at the time certainly doesn’t compensate for all the use without proper copyright.