A Dutch rail company that created controversy after posting images of clothing belonging to victims of rail disasters has taken down the photographs. Captions detailing the accidents and describing the deaths or serious injuries of the wearers were in stark contrast to the account's positioning, described as a "fashion line."
ProRail's new Instagram account looked, at first glance, to be promotional material for a new fashion line. Dubbed Vict_m Fashion, according to their Instagram handle and profile description, it soon became clear that all was not as it seemed.
Each post showed an item of clothing — ripped, torn, damaged. Photographed in an archival style with full clarity, the pieces were labeled as reconstructions of items belonging to real people. People, according to the captions, who lost life or limb on Dutch railways in recent years.
The captions bore distressing detail: the age of the person, a name (changed to protect families of the real victims), and the story of their last moments, in addition to why they were near the rail in the first place and what they did that put them into danger. Most were trying to cross tracks despite red signals, or standing too close to the edge of the tracks when a train passed by, or traveling along a line that they did not think was in use.
There was the 15-year-old girl who did not see the train coming when she followed her friends over a track on which the barriers were already closed. They escaped, but she did not. Her ripped orange dress is all that is left.
There was the torn and scuffed shoe, taken from the 14-year-old who dropped her phone onto the tracks. She leaned down to get it, not seeing the oncoming train. She remains in a coma.
Each post also bore a warning to the reader to take care and pay attention near the rails given the rising number of fatalities recorded in recent months and years.
The backlash was fierce and immediate. Drivers who had struck and killed victims while at work told of the resurfacing trauma. Families were outraged. Even Instagram viewers felt that the content was far too shocking, and though there were many messages of support for the campaign, viewers from politicians to parents made complaints.
"Sadly, bad things still happen too often on and around rail tracks because of lack of attention and recklessness," ProRail said. They did have a point: six rail track deaths in 2016 increased to 12 in 2017, and up again to 17 in 2018. Worryingly, the victims are often minors, which is why ProRail chose to aim the campaign at 12- to 18-year-olds.
"If you do a confronting campaign, there are always people who find it negative and positive," said ProRail spokesperson Jaap Eikelboom, back in April. "We think the campaign is working because people are discussing it. If we don't confront people with these kinds of pictures, it's going to keep happening."
The controversy was something they knew would happen, according to Eikelboom, who also said that the company had spent around a year planning the account. It helped the story to spread around the world, which no doubt aided their cause.
The images have now all been removed from the account, despite the company's statement that they still believed they had done the right thing.
In their place is a single video in Dutch, explaining that the posts were aimed at stopping the rise of accidents on the tracks. ProRail included an apology to families and rail workers who had been affected by the posts and acknowledged the reactions: "There was criticism, there was support, there were emotions".
The video, which includes only text, now stands as the only relic of an account which caused controversy on a widespread scale. But was it a good idea or a bad one?
We'll likely know in the first part of 2020, when the next annual figures for deaths and injuries on the railways come in. If there's a decrease, ProRail will perhaps rest easy in the knowledge that their shocking photographs of painstakingly made replica clothing paid off.
What do you think? Is shock value worth it to save lives, or is this just a thoughtless promotion gone wrong?
Image used with permission from ProRail/AFP