An anti-immigrant Facebook group in Norway by the name of Fedrelandet viktigst “Fatherland first” has been in burka uproar after a photo of some empty bus seats were shared to the page.

burka bus seats

The empty bus seats shared in the Fedrelandet viktigst group post. Photo: Facebook

The controversial photo sparked a flurry of damning comments after a number of the group’s members mistook the photo of empty seats on a bus travelling through Oslo for a group of women wearing burkas with a full face veil.

Originally posted along with the question “What do people think of this?” by a Facebook user under the name of Johan Slåttavik, allegedly as a joke. Speaking to the Washington Post’s WorldViews blog via Facebook, Slåttavik said he had been bored and wanted to play “a little practical joke” as he was curious to see how people in the anti-immigrant group might react. “I laid out the photo to see what happened,” he said, and admitted that he was shocked that so many people fell for it. Despite being intended as a wind-up, the photo was attracting comments such as “not possible”, “terrifying” and “tragic”, as well as hundreds of sad and angry reactions.

The post on the member’s-only page went viral after people began sharing screenshots of dismayed user comments. Not easily fooled, one user wrote: “They’re only empty bus seats, but looked scary,” while another exclaimed: “It looks really scary, should be prohibited. You can never know who is under, even terrorists with weapons.” Some of the more extreme comments included: “Get them out of our country, those who look like collapsed umbrellas. Scary times we live in.”

Reactions to the post shows just how subjective photography can be as one Facebook user commented: “They see what they want to see.” When used cleverly, photography can trick viewers into seeing a range of alternative subjects. The “burka bus seats” controversy is the latest example that demonstrates the powers of perception and individual bias on the what a photograph can mean to people.

What did you see when you first saw this image? Share your thoughts on the burka controversy in the comments section below.