Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stefanie Gordon's 15 minutes of fame

This week Time Magazine announced their Top 10 Photos of the Year:

While the results were dominated by photographs reflecting conflict and revolution in the Middle East and Western Asia, one image stands out as being different. Different because it is an example of 'citizen journalism' and was taken out of a plane window with an iPhone. Stefanie Gordon's images shows the Shuttle launch of May 16, 2011, bursting through the clouds and hurtling towards the stratosphere. Stephanie posted the image on Twitter and it became a social media sensation, being picked up by TV news shows and newspapers across the world. Interestingly, Stephanie became as much a part of the story as the image, with multiple interviews and stories about her (an ironic twist considering that one of the watchwords for journalists and newspapers is "report the story, don't become the story").

Citizen journalism, both in terms of blogging, twittering and transmitting newsworthy images with phones has exploded over the past couple of years, and combined with other factors, has had a devastating effect on both traditional journalism and photojournalism. Many news organisations, suffering colapses in both their traditional audiences and in advertising revenue have cut back enormously on their spending in these areas, and it has become extremely hard for journalists and photojournalists to make a living.

However, I think there is some light in this story, for the simple fact that only one of the ten Top Images of the Year was a lucky chance by an amateur in the right place at the right time. Even though there are hundreds of millions of people out there every day, taking hundreds of millions of images, and by sheer weight of numbers having the best opportunity to be "in the right place at the right time", the other nine winning images were all by professional photographers and photojournalists. The odds are stacked against them, but by the fact that they used their skill and experience (and often immense bravery) to get to the right place at the right time, and take the definitive picture of the event, they trumped the odds against them. It is of course tragic that, along with the many local casualties in these conflicts, some very talented people such as Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros (who was one of the winners) should lose their lives under these same circumstances.

Stefanie Gordon had her fifteen minutes of fame, and will always have a great story to tell about it, but it is unlikely that anything else will come from it. She was merely lucky.

The last sentence from her interview with Time is both poignant and telling:

"I am still in search for that perfect job that many thought would be offered to me after the photo caught fire."

Even if she doesn't say that she herself thought she would get a big break from her 15 minutes of fame, and it isn't implicit that the 'perfect job' would be as a photojournalist, the context of the image suggests that this is what people expected.

I think it is safe to say that Stefanie Gordon's name will never appear again in Time's list of Top 10 Photos of the Year, but the names Yuri Kozyrev, Pedro Pardo, Dominic Nahr, Pete Souza, Adam Ferguson and of course James Nachtwey, may well, and some have in the past. They made their own luck, they spent years in training, in the field, in difficult and dangerous situations, learning what they needed to know to take the iconic images of their time, and often for little reward. They should be commended for their courage and commitment and know that there are many of us who really appreciate and respect what they do, for all of us.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Jam Studios' sticky fingers....

A few days ago I was contacted by a photographer in Glasgow, Scotland seeking representation. He provided a link to his website, so I went to take a look. The first thing that seemed odd was the number of spelling errors in the navigation links, titles and text, and the random use of apostrophes.

Looking through the website, the photographs showed a variety of different styles, but they ranged in quality from mediocre to excellent. From my experience, this seems very suspicious. If a photographer can produce excellent images, they know that their portfolio will be judged by the weakest images, so they will only promote their very best work.

Also, it was clear that a fair number of the images were stock photos, not personal work. Of course, many businesses use stock photos on their websites, but should a photographer who is promoting themselves as a wedding/portrait/event/corporate/architectural photographer be using stock images on their website? (unless they are their own images of course!)

To follow up on my suspicions, I turned to Google's Search By Image for help. This quickly showed that the headline 'Wedding Package' photo: an award-winning image by photographer Joy Marie Smallwood:

The headline 'Photographic Training' image: by Reuters photojournalist Toby Melville:

The headline 'Portraiture' image: by Edinburgh photographer Jen Meiklejon:

...and the next image is by Chelmsford photographer Dan Rayner:

One of the 'Boudoir Portraits': by Associated Press photojournalist Kevin Frayer:

...but I cannot trace the photographer for the other image, though it turns out it is of actress Mena Suvari and was published in UK Marie Claire magazine:

Could there be a reasonable explanation for all these different photographers' work appearing on Jam Studios' website? There is talk on the website about them representing different photographers worldwide, so it does seem possible. To make sure, I decided to try to contact the photographers I had managed to trace through their images.

Within 24 hours I got replies from four photographers stating that they know nothing about the Jam Studios website and that their images had been stolen.

There are a great many more images on the Jam Studios website:

...some of which I have managed to trace to the real photographer, such as Belize wedding photographers Conch Creative:

With other images:

...I have found alternative sources, but cannot find exactly who the real photographer is:

So, if someone knows 'Scott' (his now defunct website was called please let me know. Please do the same, if you know the photographer for any of these other images (you can click on each screenshot to see a larger version): it seems likely that many (if not all) have been stolen from the original photographers.

Why would a 'professional' photographer do this? Someone who really has '33 years experience in the photography business' must know it is infringing another photographer's copyright to take their images and publish them on a commercial website without their permission. Claiming that those images were produced by you (or your 'studio') is even worse! If this photographer has so much experience, why doesn't he show his own images rather than stealing others?

From a potential customer's point of view this fraudulent behaviour is of major concern. Here is a 'professional photographic studio' soliciting paying clients to produce images for them, but many (if not all) of the images showcased on the website were not produced by that studio. When a customer pays good money for photographic work by this studio, what are the results going to be like, and are they going to have any resemblance to what they could expect from the website images?

With the massive increase in people claiming to be professional photographers in recent years, I have seen a lot of recent discussion in industry forums about the need for formal licensing for those calling themselves 'professionals'. While I think this is unlikely to happen (and don't even necessarily think it is a good idea) I think that fraudulent behaviour like this by people claiming to be 'professional photographers' does present a good argument for formal licensing or regulation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Altered photos as modern art

I was looking today at the FATESCAPES / Osudové krajiny project by Czech photographer Pavel Maria Smejkal when I discovered another shockingly powerful feature of Google's Search by Image facility.

Pavel's images are created by taking famous historical photographs of war and removing all human elements from the images. While some of the image sources were immediately obvious to me, such as Robert Capa's 'The Falling Soldier':

Yevgeny Khaldei's 'Soviet Flag over the Reichstag':

and Stuart Franklin's 'Tiananmen Square':

...there were others which felt familiar but which I couldn't quite place:

So I wondered if Google's Search by Image could match photos when the most important feature was missing. In this case I was impressed that it could, showing that the source image was Joe Rosenthal's 'Iwo Jima':

However, in other cases it failed, as with John Filo's image of an anti-Vietnam war protester gunned down outside Kent State University:

In this case, for a human viewer who knows the history of the original, the source is clear as the image has become as (in)famous for the poles as it is for the human content:

.. but as extraordinary as Search by Image is at matching images, in cases like this the altered image is just missing too much of the original content.

As someone with a reasonable knowledge of the history of photography, I certainly find Pavel Maria Smejkal's work interesting and intriguing. It demonstrates that with modern art, as with many things, the simplest ideas are often the best. Artist Craig Damrauer has expressed this perfectly, and on more than one level:

... but for viewers without that knowledge of the original historical images, I suspect that Smejkal's images will be pretty meaningless. Using Search by Image provides a useful way for the viewer to find the source material, and information about the history of the original images. If modern art can be used in this way to help people gain an interest in and learn about important historical events, I feel that can only be a good thing.

I have seen a lot of discussion recently about the differences between 'derivative' and 'transformative' work in art, and the copyright implications. Personally I think that Smejkal's work, for all its simplicity, has a far better case for originality than a lot of controversial works by some other very famous and successful modern artists.

Also, the ability of Google's Search by Image function to spot heavily altered or cropped images will certainly be useful for photographers trying to track down unauthorised uses of their own images, and I am sure that over time Search by Image's matching ability will only improve.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Google's "Search by Image" for investigative journalists....

I got an email recently:


My name is Zara and I'm a regular reader of

I'd like to thank you for the excellent information I've found on; it's always a great pleasure to read your articles
and I have subsequently become a loyal reader.

I live in Scotland where I try to increase the awareness about
renewable energy and solar panels amongst my family and friends.

It occurred to me that you might be interested in including a
guest article on about a new research that shows how
a solar table can charge mobile devices wirelessly.

For example, I could provide an article in the form of a little guide
to help your readers learn more about this research – hopefully, this
would spark a discussion about the topic at hand.

Please, take a minute to consider this proposal. Any support
would be much appreciated.

With your help, we can educate the public about the dangers of fossil
fuels, this hopefully can help increase the awareness about solar panels.

Either way, thanks for reading and keep posting your excellent
information on

I hope you have a good week.

Kind Regards,
Dr. Zara Dobson
Renewable Energy Researcher
Edinburgh, Scotland


It's certainly a nice email - very complementary and supportive. The only problem is that a computer wrote it. If you analyse it, it is just a spam 'fluffer' email with a bit of personalisation, trying to flatter the reader into publishing an article on their website.

Taking a couple of key phrases from the email and searching on Google:

"I'm a regular reader of" "thank you for the excellent information"

...quickly shows thousands of matches of the same email but with a different website name put in each time.

So why is 'Dr. Zara Dobson' doing this?

Trying the domain name in the email address ( just redirects to the Twitter account:

Now, the photo on the Twitter account is immediately suspicious. It just looks too 'stocky'. In this case Google Search by Image doesn't prove that useful as it just shows the same image being used by 'Dr Zara Dobson' on another blog directory. No smoking gun here.

However, when you look at the source url of the image file on Twitter you get:

If this is Doctor Zara Dobson, why is the image file called erin_mckenzie.jpg? Who is Erin Mckenzie?

I am now beginning to wonder if Doctor Zara Dobson really exists. She has over 60 followers on Twitter, so I would be interested to hear from any who have actually met her! I suspect they have been hoodwinked into following a non-existent person.

Searching on Google for "Zara Dobson" comes up with quite a list, and it seems even respectable online newspapers have been fooled into publishing these 'articles':

One of the most useful techniques in investigative journalism is 'follow the money'. In terms of websites and online articles like this, the key is to 'follow the links', because that is where the money comes in.

The links in the 'article' lead to a couple of personal blogs about solar panels:

but what is immediately suspicious is that even though the blogs are by different people, the design is very similar:

and then when you read the 'about' sections you see that, even though one blog is written by 'Rosalind' and one by 'Hettie', they both say "Prior to getting married, I spent over 3 years as a teacher’s assistant."

With a bit of research, you then find more...

and more...

and more!

...very similar 'personal' blogs, and you really have to wonder what is going on.

When you compare the 'About' text you get:

I write to help you get all the information to raise the awareness on energy efficiency and solar energy.

I write to help You get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependent to successful energy efficiency.

I write to help you get all information you need to design an eco friendly garden and protect birds.

I write to help you get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependency to successful energy efficiency.

I write to help you get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependency to successful energy efficiency.


Prior to getting married, I spent over 2 years as a teacher, corporate trainer and workshop leader.

Prior to raising my family, I spent over 3 years as a teacher and workshop leader.

Prior to raising my family, I spent over ten years as a teacher, corporate trainer and workshop leader.

It is clear that all these blogs have been written by the same person, not the people in the pictures. So who are those people in the pictures? This is where Google's Search by Image proves REALLY useful. By checking the profile headshots you quickly find that they are of people with completely different names. Are these people writing under pseudonyms or have the images just been stolen off Facebook profiles and other sites?

real person and profile

real person and profile

real person and profile

So... I have tried contacting these people to check. So far I have had one response confirming that the image was stolen, so I think it is reasonable to assume that all these images were stolen.

In summary, the 5 'solar' blogs shown above are all fake, and built on criminal activity (theft, copyright infringement, misrepresentation...) and whoever is behind them has fooled respectable people and businesses into unwittingly becoming part of this illegal behaviour:

this is not Shannon Combs:

this is not Barbara Young:

So, why has someone gone to all this effort? It may be a marketer trying to built 'authority' websites with lots of links, to make money from the Google Adverts on the pages (I would have thought misrepresentation like this must be against Google's terms and conditions?). On the other hand, do the companies whose products are mentioned/promoted on these blogs know anything about it? Whether they do or not, I can't imagine it is in their interests to be associated with these websites.

And who is behind it all? I will leave that to the real investigative journalists out there!

UPDATE 20 August 2011: checking Google Search by Image again, I now find that it has found more matches for the Dr Zara Dobson portrait image, including an example which proves it is a stock image!

proof that the image of Dr Zara Dobson is a stock image

Also, the stolen portrait photos in the 'About' sections on all these fake blogs have disappeared and the text has been changed to "Hi, I’m Enrico and I write...". It appears whoever is behind all these fake blogs has become aware that their illegal activity has been exposed and they are now trying to cover their tracks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Google's new Search By Image: TinEye on Steroids!

I have written before about the wonderful TinEye and how it can be a very useful tool to both trace your own images across the web, and also to find possible conflicting uses when you are looking to use a stock image commercially. Well, now we have Google's new service, Search By Image.

If you use Chrome or Firefox as your browser, when you go to you should now see a little camera icon in the search box:

If you click on the camera icon you get a popup:

Where you can copy an image url, upload an image or even drag an image!

So I tried it out with one of my older images of Tuareg tribesmen in the Sahara, and clicked 'Search Images'.

Now here we are interested in the image results rather than the text results. If you click on "Find other sizes of this image: All sizes" you get:


If you roll over an image it shows you the website where it was found. The vast majority of these uses are unauthorised.

Also, back on the previous Google results page it shows 'Pages that include matching images'. This shows page after page after page of matches:

A lot of these results are blogs and personal pages, and probably not worth chasing up on copyright infringement (though it would be nice to at least get a credit and link to the original!) but if (among others) the rather fancy looking Montillon Hotel and Resorts:

...cannot produce a valid licensing agreement for this image, they are going to get a big bill for this unauthorised commercial use.

TinEye has been a useful tool for a while, and has indexed 2 billion images, but I would estimate that Google Images has around 10 billion images in their index. It is clear that Google's Search By Image tool is going to be extremely valuable in helping photographers find the companies which are using their images without permission or payment.

If any other photographers have some good examples of how Google's Search By Image has helped them track unauthorised uses of their images by companies, please add them to the comments section below.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Travel Ink / LatitudeStock update

Update 7 February 2011

The Director of LatitudeStock has contacted me directly to try to sort out the issues I detailed in my previous blogpost. She does not have the full details yet, but it appears to have been an unfortunate oversight and my images should not have been transferred to their new site. She believes that there have been no sales of my images, and will confirm this tomorrow, as well as giving me a full account of what happened.

From our conversation I hope this can be resolved amicably and the agency can find how to avoid anything like this happening in the future.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

hiybbprqag / hiybbprqug

hiybbprqag is today's word of the day! It seems that Bing (Microsoft's search engine) is being accused of copying Google's search results and Google set up some fake pages, including one about seating at a theatre in Los Angeles with the non-existant word 'hiybbprqag' to catch them (though the BBC is now reporting that the word was 'hiybbprqug' - oops!) It appears that the same result later showed up in Bing's search results even though the only link to the page was from Google's search results....

This is an area of 'industrial espionage' and cheating which strikes a chord with me personally, as I have seen similar methods used by competitors in the stock photography industry. At the more benign end it has been other agencies blatantly copying my ideas for site developments and new services, while at the other end there has been the attempted theft of confidential data.

One photo agency was caught by a similar 'sting' (we had unique data 'seeded' which could only be accessible from a private part of our site, and that data was used to solicit new customers and photographers by this other agency). When confronted, the CEO denied all knowledge and promised to investigate when he was sent the evidence. He never got back to us. Interestingly, he left the company 2 months later.

I believe innovation and original ideas are the only way for a business to survive in the longterm and I find it shameful that there are people and businesses out there which try to get ahead by unethical, if not downright illegal means.