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My life as a stock photo

Picture this: you’re browsing the internet in the usual unfocused daze. Suddenly, you catch the gaze of a familiar face staring back at you. Your eyes finally adjust, allowing you to take in the fact that the face you’re looking at actually is you — only it’s not.

This is not far from the sequence of events that led writer Shubnum Khan to recount her story in a now viral Twitter thread entitled “How I ended up with my face on a McDonald’s advert in China: A cautionary tale”.

In 2012, a friend living in Canada posted an image on Khan’s Facebook wall. The image was an advert promoting immigration in a Canadian newspaper. Her friend commented on the fact that the person in the picture looked just like Khan.

Before Khan had even had a chance to check Facebook, a debate about whether the woman in the picture actually was Khan was already raging in the comments.

“When I first saw it, I thought that it was the weirdest thing. Why am I in a newspaper in an advert embracing immigrants to Canada?” Khan told the Mail & Guardian.

Eventually, another friend pointed out that a few years ago they had both participated in a photo shoot while at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. They had signed release forms.

This is when it clicked for Khan. “I realised something was wrong.”

Two years earlier, a photographer had promised a 24-year-old Khan and a group of her friends professional portraits in exchange for allowing him to photograph them.

She decided to do a reverse Google Image search using the images from the photo shoot and found a barrage of adverts, book and magazine covers, even online dating profiles, each with her face attached to them.

“Initially I was, like, ‘Okay, so now this image is a stock photo. I’m going to be in stock photos, which is my own fault because I have signed something without looking at it’,” Khan says.

“But then I realised that the adverts went beyond what I understood a stock photo to be.”

The names attached to Khan’s face — Kelsie from Arizona, Bonny from Laos, Chandra from California — were obviously not her own. The images had also been altered, Photoshopped in one case to make the contrast between the before and after photos in an advert for a skin whitening supplement appear more pronounced.

A year later Khan contacted the photographer to try to get the photos taken down from his site.

He agreed after she complained that she could be recognised, a fact which could cause the published author reputational harm, she reasoned. She concedes that this argument, though it worked, probably has no basis in the law.

Trademark attorney Nishan Singh confirmed that, if a release form is signed, the photographs are protected by copyright law. This means that the photographer or the agency has free rein in how they decide to use those images.

“Unfortunately there are no limitations that can be retroactively applied once the release form is signed. The only thing a model can do to stop their likeness being distributed in this way is to ask for appropriate restrictions prior to signing the release,” Singh says.

She says what happened to Khan is probably fairly common. Once Khan’s story went viral, a number of people responded to her thread with stories of their own encounters with the stock image industry.

“Unfortunately, the main thing is that I didn’t read what I signed,” Khan says. “We find ourselves signing documents all the time and, when we do sign, we don’t even give it a second thought.”

She says that though she can now laugh at her being turned unwittingly into a stock photo, she still regards the situation with a sense of terror.

“I am an example of one of the worst things that could happen. You could sign away a picture of your face and it could be used how ever anyone who buys it wants to use it.” 

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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