The Bad, The Worse and The Ugly Side of Photography (strap yourselves in for this one)

There’s a real problem in this industry of photography, something that most professional photographers of any real caliber have likely experienced.  Image theft.

[learn_more caption=”The scenario most photographers are familiar with is:”] XYZ Photographer posts an image online for a client (perhaps a sneak peek, perhaps for a slideshow, perhaps on Facebook…the reason doesn’t matter). Posted image(s) then get picked up by another photographer, who may take a fancy to said image(s) for whatever reason (lack of skill, lack of knowledge, lack of confidence in ones’ own work, etc) and decides to exploit this other photographer’s work by including the image(s) in their own gallery on their website. Thus not only stealing another photographer’s property but also created a false brand of their own. Clients who see these beautiful images on someone elses’ site associate this work as being created by the photographer in question, never knowing the Photographer XYZ is the original creator. This scenario typically occurs because the offending photographer has no clue that the world of photography is a small world and that eventually their cheats, thievery and lies will catch up to them. This photographers gallery is also likely to be filled with other photographer’s images. Historically this seems to be the pattern anyway.[/learn_more]

Most photographers combat this by placing a watermark (usually a logo) somewhere  on the image (see images below).  Some photographers make it glaringly obvious, my personal preference is simply an identifier on the side or on the bottom that doesn’t detract from the image itself.



Many clients find it off putting that photographers watermark their images, I was told once, long ago (by an attorney friend) “You really shouldn’t put your logo on your images, no one will ever care to steal them.” a laughable statement from a photographer’s perspective because image theft is VERY real and VERY PROBLEMATIC in the photography industry.  If I didn’t put a watermark/identifier on my images I think it would be simply sticking my head in the sand.

[learn_more caption=”The Watermark Debate Rages On”] I have discussed this with some of my wedding photographer colleagues and understand their desire to NOT watermark and in a way I see their point (I still disagree because, well why not?! 🙂 ), wedding and event photographers are typically paid a hefty fee, upfront, for their services. Portrait photographers, such as myself, earn their livelihood on speculation. We don’t know what kind of sale a session can bring. It can be miniscule, barely covering our cost of running our business or the sales can be considerable, helping to clothe and feed our families. Usually the latter occurs, thankfully. Wedding photographers care about image theft but it affects their bottom line differently…[/learn_more]

Now I usually reserve rants of this nature for private photography related groups or one on one conversations with friends.  In this case I think I’m justified in voicing my frustration and anger, here, on my blog.  It’s my work I’m protecting and talking about, it’s well within my rights.  Not only because it happened to me (it’s actually happened countless times – from innocent kids playing stupid games on the Brazilian social network Orkut with my (&other photogs) images to Flickr re-edits of my work (don’t ask…), to other photographers (really “fauxtographers” as much as I hate that word) who have taken my work, deleted my watermark and called it their own.  This list of transgressions is pretty extensive and if I stop to think about it: very depressing).  No not because it finally happened but because this most recent occurrence has hit me in the gut.  I feel violated and saddened.   That a supposedly trustworthy photographer would do something so flagrant as steal my work but to also try to sell images of mine as their own!

You read that right.  This Chicago area photographer was entrusted with some of my images as a FAVOR to a good client of mine.  He/she was granted usage for a slideshow he/she was creating for my clients two years ago.  Every image had a copyrighted statement in the metadata portion of the image(s), screenshot of that actual metadata statement is below:

As you can see I explicitly allowed permission for usage ONLY for the event slideshow.



I happened to be on this photographers’ site on Thursday and meandered through the Mitzvah gallery.  Moment of truth:  I fully admit that my curiosity got the better of me.  I wanted to see what they created for our mutual client two years ago for the reception portion of the Bar Mitzvah that I wasn’t covering (to my credit it took me two years to be curious!).  On the site there are separate galleries, I clicked on my clients name and discovered a whole ton of images in a short slideshow leading into the gallery. Admittedly most images here were the photographers in question, however the image LEADING into that very slideshow looked VERY familiar to me, ridiculously familiar to me…to the point of my taking a screen capture of this image to be sure that it was indeed what I suspected, image theft.  I looked into every detail, the piece of lint on the right shoulder of the jacket, the crooked way the tie ever so slightly was knotted to the right, the expression, the catchlights in the Bar Mitzvah boys’ eyes.  ALL of it matched up.

Intrigued I dug deeper, found several more images of mine littered throughout the gallery subset (there were various sections to this gallery).  Two years ago I sent off >90 images to this photographer and they took that opportunity of displaying a good deal of them ON THEIR PHOTOGRAPHY WEBSITE, WITH THEIR LOGO ON THEM and surrounded said images by digital frame edits that were placed on there after the images left my hands.  In short: this photog claimed my images as their own, put their logo and handiwork on them and put them on their site.

Rewind back two years ago to the day I sent those images off to them: I rushed through  production edits (soft proofing them), so that my client and her family could enjoy the formal images from the day before.  Fast forward two years and this photog is laying claim to my work.  Digging even deeper into their portfolio for the event in question, I discovered that he/she was not only laying claim to my workmanship but he was ALSO SELLING MY IMAGES PIECE MEAL TO ANY TAKERS, yes you read that right.

My images were alongside this other photogs own, all for sale with various size options posted next to them.

I was seeing red, how could I not be seeing every shade of red possible?  HOW DARE THEY!?!  I trusted this photog with my client’s images!  Hell my CLIENT trusted them as well! My client essentially laid her reputation (with me) on the line for them.  And they did this?!  SELLING MY IMAGES.  What in the world!?!

Up until this point in the game I had thought I’ve seen everything in the dirty underbelly of the business of photography.  Admittedly it’s a side clients never should see and outsiders would never ever expect.  The irony that I’m laying this out here for the world to see, to judge and to critique.  That irony is NOT lost on me.  Most honest photogs will admit that there’s a lot of ugliness in this industry, it’s not only extremely competitive but in our current economy it’s gotten cut throat.  To boot every one has access of some sort to a dSLR and that, in part, is making this industry competitive beyond words.  These factors have made some of the players stoop very very low to downright playing dirty.  I thought I’d heard and seen it all, funny though, until now I had yet to hear about this particular scenario.  Here I was smack dab in the middle of this melodrama…honestly this is something out of an image creators nightmare.

By this point, with my vision clouded in every shade of red, I’m acting purely on impulse.  I immediately pull up this photogs’ contact info and proceed to call their phone number.  I didn’t even stop to think  – I just did it.

Why call?  Why not cool my jets? 

Well I’ve been in the game long enough and I know that cowering or hiding only allows the goofy stuff to proliferate, people get away with all sorts of crazy nonsense.  Hell it’s been two years, I highly doubt  Bigshot Photographer  thought that they’d ever be caught.  I know if I was them I would be sitting pretty self assured that there would be no getting caught.  That was a misstep on their part.  The web has made the world a very teeeny tiiiiny place.   Things eventually do catch up to you.  While that crazy karma bus might only come through once in awhile, when it finally does it sometimes rushes through like a speeding bullet.

[learn_more caption=”Telling it like it is, the pros and not-so-much-cons:”] I’ve realized that when you the ugly truth on the line and tell people how it really is people don’t mess with you. Why? Because they don’t want to be called out on their b.s.. Let’s face it: if we know we’re going to get away with something we do it. I saw a funny clip by Louis C.K. on his HBO special “Oh My God” the other day. Per Louis C.K.: People don’t NOT commit murder because it’s the “right thing to do”, they don’t commit murder because there are LAWS against it.  If you haven’t caught up to Louis C.K. yet you really need to.  Not saying murder is ok, I hold a different belief system than Louis but he’s still funny and has a point.  People (often) don’t do bad stuff because if they get caught they get in trouble. Anyway enough with this aside I’m going to totally meander off topic so let’s get back to it but not before I explore the cons quickly.

The cons: you don’t make friends when you do this.  There’s a definite line in the sand.  Along with a small amount of respect is this line of disdain.  You take a risk when you pick up that phone and tell someone: hey I caught you being a thief.  I guess in this case I didn’t pause long enough to weigh the pros and cons – I’m pretty sure I did the right thing…[/learn_more]



I immediately called because what was done was VERY wrong.  Wrong, unethical, shitty…whatever terminology you want to assign to this, it’s applicable.  I’ve seen the gamut of what happens in the underbelly of photography.  I’ve heard the excuses, the name calling, the dragging stuff through the mud – all of it.  So instead of tiptoeing around the issue I went straight to the source.  Get ‘er done, as they say.

So I picked up the phone before I could talk myself out of it (and I promise I won’t go into too much detail here) the short of it is that when confronted they did listen, especially when I threw around the terms relating to FEDERAL COPYRIGHT LAWS and PUNISHABLE BY THE FULLEST EXTENT OF THE LAW.  But then the excuse making happened.  ALWAYS with the excuse making:

“I didn’t do it, someone else did it” excuse.  Seriously!  I could’ve written the script on that one.

Then when confronted with trying to sell my images as their own, I was told: “If it’s any consolation, no one bought them anyway…”

Let me repeat that, my images were stolen AND attempts were being made to resell them as this other photographers and all this person could say to me was:  “If it’s any consolation, no one bought them anyway…”

That coupled with the “I didn’t do it, the guy running the slideshow did it and probably didn’t know these weren’t our images” excuse.  There’s a script in this industry that when a perp gets caught excuse making is the first thing they go for: “someone else did it, my web designer did it, my assistant did it…” and on and on.   Excuse making, we often see this in this industry when someone is caught with their pants around their ankles doing a deed they shouldn’t be doing, coupled with bad attitude.  The attitude, the disregard for wrong doing, the lack of apology:  none of it looks good on ANYone especially with someone caught red handed.  At the very least it can’t be healthy for the soul.

Right?  I mean – really people!?!?  This is stuff our mama taught us!

So instead of apologizing.  Instead of saying: “Hey you know…you’re right, I screwed up!!  It was wrong of me.”  You know an apology for blatant wrongdoing, totally justified.  Instead I’m lead down this path: let’s insult the woman who just discovered you blatantly ripping her © property off.  Let’s insult the woman who has explicit evidence that you were to only use said © property for one specific use for one specific instance.  Let’s insult me…

 Cue elevator music



You know I’ll be fully honest (why stop now, right?)  I’m not fully comfortable with keeping this post up on my blog but at the same time I know that it’s high time that pros like myself who do our best to produce unique, beautiful and quality work speak up against the cheap, the lackluster, the liars, the cheats, the thieves!  I know that at this moment I’m exhausted of all this ugly tomfoolery and I’ve spent >3 hours typing this, editing this, adding that, re-reading this to stop now.  It’s out there.  This rant belongs to the world.

I don’t deny that I haven’t been perfect myself.  I don’t know anyone who gets their stuff together the first go around and I respect those that pick themselves up after making a mistake and persevering.  I 100% get that we’re all a work in progress.  I myself am only about 1/4 of the way of getting it right but let’s face it!  This is basic stuff.  If you’re going to sell an image make sure it belongs to you first (be it your work or someones’ work that you’ve purchased rights to)!!  It is basic kindergarten 101.

>>>>     Would I have been mad even if I was given an “I’m sorry” “I did wrong” any glimmer of an apology?  Probably.  But I would also be much more forgiving and less incensed.  And I wouldn’t have spent my time for the past few hours writing this post!  It’s now o’dark thirty for those keeping track of the time.



There is a saying: “better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”   Let’s be honest, it really is a total crap quote when you’re the one on the short end of that stick!   But there is a lesson in that saying if you take the time to pay attention:  asking for forgiveness is an act of humility.  Humility forces you to learn the lesson!  Insulting and blaming and excuse making…that’s not humility.  That’s deflection so that mirror that’s turned on you doesn’t reveal the beast within.  That’s not growth and it sure as hell isn’t a great way to run a business.  I’m glad this person isn’t part of my social circle, I’d be watching my back!  Life’s too short for that mess…

I’ll add that I find it interesting that this person in question has dozens of images with celebrities, politicians (high profile people) shown publicly.  I’m not saying this is what they’re doing but that this is just my opinion of all that’s wrong with the world around us.  It’s like many of us possess this altar to the illusion of success.  The illusion of accomplishment.  WHEN DID LIFE BECOME A PR STUNT????  What happened to perfecting your craft (in whatever field you choose)?   How about hard work, that whole “nose to the grindstone” thing?   What happened to being fair to other people?!  These days people worry less about the integrity of their actions and more on the superficial: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO MY IMAGE?  HOW CAN I SPIN THIS PR MACHINE??

We are not our IMAGE.  We are much more complicated and we are much more human than that.  But the focus on the superficial:  who I’m seen with, what I drive, where I shop.  Those are what define people in this day & age MORE than the quality of ourselves as human beings.  How many photography blogs speak to the new photographer and outline what designer wear they’re donning to shoot weddings.  I mean this is a symptom of a much grander problem.

And a damn shame.


I also find it interesting that a lot of my and this photogs’  mutual friends on a popular social network are respected leaders in this industry.  FASCINATING.  It begs the question: have we gotten to the point that reality tv and celebrity shenanigans (and the allure of fame) have made us more concerned about IMAGE and the ILLUSION of having skill more important than actually having skill (or integrity for that matter)?  I fear that answer, I really really do.  I’m not saying the work on the site was awful, some of it was decent but WHY steal another photographer’s work to prop up your own when you have plenty of work of your own to go around?

…and I’m not alone, for I am not the only one fed up with the status quo in this industry.  I’ve worked hard, I’ve hustled!  And I know for a fact that many of us are fed up.  It really is time we (the hardworking hustlers not the hustling fakers) stop allowing the image thieves, the undercutting non professionals, the lackluster producers who claim they’re well seasoned working pros polluting our industry with their not-so-truthful-ways, all those with questionable tactics or lack of actual client experience teaching those who don’t know any better.  This is a rant about image theft but it goes so far beyond that.  It goes into owning it, whatever “it” is.  Not faking life, not faking photography.  Owning where you are and setting your feet on the path that leads you to a full life, a life filled with truth and honor.  To hell with all these questionable tactics!!  The direction we’re headed is cut throat, soul sucking vampirism!

  • I’m tired of clients getting ripped off by supposed professionals
  • I’m tired of the allure of cheap services taking precedence over skill, talent, knowledge, top of the line equipment and beautiful, heirloom end quality photographic products
  • I’m tired of other photographers (many who are new and don’t know any better) and clients getting ripped off by “pros” in my industry.

All these things overshadow those of us with skill, business sense, business integrity and know how.  It affects the world!

It’s heartbreaking to watch such an amazing profession eat itself alive.  I wonder if less of us stood silent, for obvious fear of potential PR backlash to our brands or retribution, and more of us spoke up if we’d be where we are today:  fighting to keep an industry alive that seems hell bent on devouring itself.

If you’ve made it this far thank you.  If not,  I completely understand.  Now it’s time to get back to my regularly scheduled inner peace.  Maybe do some face yoga.  Yeah, that’s a thing.  Maybe it’ll get rid of my frown lines that I developed in the last 12 hours…

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  • Marylynn - April 26, 2013 - 6:17 am

    Mare – I’m so sorry that you had to go through all this. How DARE that guy!! Your work is absolutely beautiful, and NO ONE has the right to take what is yours, and try to pass it off as theirs. I really think you should look into getting some legal
    involvement here……

  • Lauri - April 26, 2013 - 9:37 pm

    Bravo. I don’t know how to get the attention of consumers, and to really get through to them… to let them know how the illusion of cheap is going to cost them and all of us in the long run. Everything about it is bad, and it’s going to result in having nothing left to choose from except poor quality and unscrupulous providers…. of photography and everything else. So many of our colleagues have called it quits, and those were talented people with integrity. We all lose out because the beautiful photography they would create will never be seen now. If consumers don’t start demanding talent and integrity again, rather than being so obsessed with getting more, more, more, for less and less, the resulting lack of quality choices willl be their own faults. I’ve tried to make a change, and my own single voice doesn’t get very far. So thank you for taking a stab at it. Hoping the message gets thru to both consumers and photographers alike. And shame on this image thief who has the gall to market himself as a photographer.

  • Robert Austin Fitch Photography NYC - May 7, 2013 - 11:38 am

    I feel your pain…I spend several hours a week (at least) tracking down copyrighted images of mine being used without permission by all sorts of websites and blogs. It sucks, but if I don’t find the images and fire off DMCA take down notices right away the problem grows exponentially. What a waste of time this wac-a-mole stuff is….
    Anyway, keep up the fight and keep taking beautiful photographs, your work is outstanding!
    Cheers, Rob

  • marmalade - May 7, 2013 - 4:16 pm

    Thanks Robert, Lauri & Marylynn. I’ve been mulling this over for the past couple of weeks and am still so crestfallen. I literally cannot believe the lack of integrity in people in this industry these days. How can someone like this a) get away with this and b) how can they sleep at night? It’s all at once infuriating and stupefying.

  • jafabrit - May 15, 2013 - 7:54 am

    I am sharing a link to this on my blog, grrrrrrrrrrrr.

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