Early in my professional photography career I was hired by a small company to photograph one of their productions. The production, while showcasing the dancers, also included a guest appearance by a very, very famous ballerina. I felt absolutely starstruck, even though we, quite honestly, had mutual friends and were fairly close in age.
The company was my client. They received the images I created. Anybody else was allowed to view and purchase the images if they wanted…but the company was, in this situation, my client.
After posting a few preview images online, I just happened to visit the star ballerina’s social media account. There, on her page, was my image of her. Despite a copyright notice, the image had been screenshot, a filter added and nowhere in the caption was a credit to me.
I still remember that this made me burst into tears. The dancer’s following was significant, to say the least. And when you are in a referral based business like mine (really, every business is), having somebody credit you when they have a massive amount of social media followers can be career-changing. But nope. No credit. And no respect.
When I was a professional dancer, we were always told to credit the photographer if sharing their work. When I didn’t, it was because I was young and didn’t know better. But this dancer was employed as a principal by one of the most famous companies in the world. This wasn’t her first rodeo.
The trouble was, I had no self-esteem. I felt like a big nobody. I was just starting out in my new career. And I respected her greatly as an artist. So I had no idea how to write her directly and say, “Hi! I’m such a big fan! You are seriously INCREDIBLE!!!! What an honor it was to photograph you!!! Also, you stole that.”
So instead, I never reached out to her.
Eventually some friends heard about the situation and sort of “went after” her in the comments of the image. She eventually put a credit in the caption. But by then the image had been seen and for the most part, forgotten by her followers. After that, I started writing a more serious copyright notice in every caption of every professional image I posted And tried to move on with the hustle that is running a Denver photography business.
The mature thing
Last week Martin and I sat down to dinner. As we filled each other in on our days, I updated him on the stolen image. We were newly dating when the dancer mentioned above had taken my image, and since then he has seen several other incidents of copyright infringement occur. Martin was absolutely disappointed that it had happened once again…and as he listened and nodded to the whole story, he finished by asking me one question:
“So did you contact them and ask them to take it down?”
I hated telling him no, but that was the truth. Why? I don’t like confrontation. Or as most of you call it, “Communication”.
“No. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It never seems to end well. It never seems to solve the problem. They ignore me or get offended. So I just…well, I blocked the company.”
“I mean, at least they won’t be able to take any other images.”
When we know better, we do better
Martin strongly felt I should contact the company, but He understood why I didn’t want to. And really, it felt like I had every right to know why they had bypassed a very, very clear copyright notice and taken my image without permission. I had paid them almost $400 for their product…they had taken my image for free without permission…and so why did I feel like I was the “bad guy” of the situation?? I mean, Why couldn’t I stand up to the dancer? I’ve been around dancers my whole life and despite how famous some of them seem, they are just people like you and me. So why was I so scared? I’m still examining this inside of myself.
I decided to ignore Martin’s advice and just move on. And that’s when I opened my Instagram account and saw a new direct message request. I immediately knew who it was: The owner of the company had messaged me from her personal account.
“Hi. I noticed that you blocked me on my business account and I wasn’t sure why. If there is something I did wrong, please tell me so that I can fix it immediately.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I felt myself wanting to be insanely apologetic. Instead, I stood up for myself. Diplomatically, yes. But I stood up for myself. I said that my image had been taken, despite a very clear copyright notice. I said the image was reposted in an incorrect crop, hiding my watermark and part of Maggie’s head. And I said that I would have given her the image for free, but that everything had happened behind my back.
I held my breath. And then the communication started.
The business owner said that she had been under the impression that she had done everything correctly and that she only wanted to help my image and business to be seen. I then explained how selling photographs…not giving them…is how I make my living. It is what puts food on the table. IT is what will pay for a house…a wedding…babies. It’s my livelihood. And that giving an image for free is always a courtesy and a gift, not something that should be taken for granted.
The more we talked, the more we got on the same page. She started telling me about how people were stealing from her company in a different way, and how she was dealing with that…and suddenly she understood where I was coming from. She understood that the equivalent would be me walking into her office or business, picking up a piece of merchandise, and happily walking out without paying.
I apologized for not approaching her, myself…and for blocking her. Avoiding seemed so much easier, especially with my social anxiety. And I certainly had not expected the conversation to go as well as it did. Her company was actually quite big and in my experience, those companies often won’t even see or answer direct messages via Instagram. There’s always the comment section…but commenting negatively as your business can also bring trouble and drama from other people. So instead of handling it, I blocked her.
We ended the conversation with open hearts. I agreed to send her future images so she could post them without unflattering crops, and she agreed to give me a discount on future purchases. It truly made me smile, even though the conversation was very unexpected.
I believe that the more my business grows, the less time I will have to worry about these things happening. I doubt that the most famous photographers in the world are worried about people screen shooting their images, unless the person who did it is somehow making a massive profit off the stolen work. It’s an ongoing struggle for me now, though as my business is still so young and tomorrow’s client…and paycheck…never feels guaranteed to me. So I’m still very, very protective of my work.
All that I can say is that I’m grateful for the lesson. I’m also grateful for my voice being heard by a fellow business owner, and the chance to educate somebody who didn’t know better. When we know better, we do better.
(sigh) I love a happy ending. Now back to France.
Golden Hour in Paris
The moment I unboxed the gold dress that my followers encouraged me to bring to Paris, I absolutely knew that it had to be photographed either just after sunrise or just before sunset. Portraits at this time will almost always wrap your subject in a blanket of gold light.