Facebook Profile Pictures, the Ultimate Public Profile Database?

Die falsche Tote, SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
Die falsche Tote, SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG

In his week’s issue of  The Courrier International N°1007 , French edition, I finally came across the actual portrait of Neda SOLTANI, a 32 year old English Literature teacher, who got accidently mediatised as Neda Agha-SOLTAN.

According to the article « La femme de la photo » by David Schraven in the Courrier, originally published as Das zweite Leben der Neda Soltani (The Second Life of Neda Soltani) in the Suddeutsche Zeitung on 5th February 2010, the visual identity mix up started from Facebook.

Following the massive diffusion of Neda Agha-Soltan’s murder video on YouTube, Web users, bloggers and visual platform users wanted to see what « Iran’s Angel » really looked like. Between the night of 20 and 21st June, an anonymous Facebook user (most probably Amy L.Beam) searched for Neda’s profile  on Facebook and accidently diffused SOLTANI’s profile picture on the Web as Agha-Soltan’s visual identity.

Soon after groups and public pages were created on Facebook, bloggers, European and American T.V channels also started diffusing portraits of Neda found on the web, among which was Soltani’s headscarf Facebook profile picture.

SOLTANI's Facebook Fan Page
SOLTANI's Facebook Fan Page

Although most blogs that I had consulted in 2009  illustrated their posts with the original Twitpic screen capture of a blood smeared face of Neda, protestors paraded preferably with her portrait « en vie », unknowingly mourning Soltani!

Neda Soltani's Facebook Profile Picture held by protestors in Maubourg. Source Flickr
Neda Soltani's Facebook Profile Picture held by protestors in Maubourg. Source Flickr

Following this unexpected publicity, Soltani’s Facebook account received hundreds of friend requests and her friends in Teheran believed her to be deceased. Even after the official release of Neda’Agha- Soltan’s photographs by her parents (23 June, 2009), Soltani’s photos continued circultaing the web.

In an attempt to stop the mistaken identity, Soltani deleted her Facebook profile picture but by then it was too late.  In her interview with Schraven, Soltani currently in Germany as a political asylum seeker, expressed her sorrow for having lost her identity. Although her friends and official Media like the BBC mentioned the identity mix up in the portraits associated to Neda Agha-Soltan, accroding to Schavren other media sources (Speigel Online, The New York Times) continue to diffuse the living Neda’s Facebook profile picture.

Neda Soltani’s case is a solid example of how people continue to believe in the power of profile pictures posted online to be true or socially validated visual representation of themselves. Although this practice was instored since the use of the portrait on Personal Home Pages as a visual element of self-presentation (1994), the blurring between the personal and the public visual representation on Internet has been made visible especially on Social Network Sites. A right click, a screen cature and the Facebook or any other digitized photograph on the Internet is in the public domain.

In Soltani’s case neither Facebook, nor the Internet as a public domain are at fault, but the way people and communities make use of them!