Last June, my morning routine was interrupted by a series of texts from a friend, showing a pair of screen shots that were at first incomprehensible. In one, under the headline “Better Singles, Better Dates,” my boyfriend Patrick’s smiling face hovered in the bottom row of a Brady Bunch-style grid of other men, as if it had been ripped from a personal account.
“WTF IS THIS?” my friend wrote, “Since when are you guys online dating?” Good question.
“Patrick,” I yelped, “look at this.” As we huddled over the phone, another image popped up—another grid of faces, but this time all women. All the way on the left, in the second row, was mine. A small logo gave the name of the matchmaking service being advertised: HowAboutWe.
Neither the images nor the site were immediately familiar to us. The pictures hadn’t been taken from our social network profiles, nor had Patrick and I ever online-dated. Of course, that’s where my mind went first: Was my live-in boyfriend of five-plus years maintaining a double life filled with Internet honeys? But how would that work—he doesn’t even know how to send an instant message. Or does he?
Within a few moments, though, it dawned on me what I was looking at. In 2009, a photographer friend, Jenny, had snapped some photos of us around the house for her portfolio. When the shoot was over, we signed model release forms with the vague notion that she might offer the pictures to a stock photo agency. But we never thought anyone would actually buy them.
At first, being an inadvertent star of an online dating ad campaign seemed hilarious, and I reveled in the joke, posting screenshots on Facebook and dominating the proverbial water cooler at my workplace, the Bay Citizen. But the ads continued to run through the fall and winter, and gradually they came to haunt me. The online dating service they promoted, once obscure, now seemed to have sprouted the world’s most intractable Internet campaign. Looking at the New York Times website over the shoulder of my boss, I’d spy Patrick, seemingly the happiest, most single guy amid other happy, supposedly single guys. Acquaintances and friends sent concerned emails and Facebook messages. I was just looking at something on NY Mag and saw this ad—isn’t that your boyfriend in here? Maybe just a look-alike? In any case, wanted to share ….
Even more troubling was the notion that pictures of Patrick and me were floating around the ether, out of our grasp and susceptible to any insult or manipulation. For example, Jenny hadn’t taken many solo shots of us. In order to slot our faces into separate grids of smiling men and women, the dating service may have had to snip a happy-together image in half. Is that even allowed? What else could a stock-agency client do to my picture?
Some Internet research taught me that examples of unfortunate stock-photo use abound. One 9-year-old girl was featured on an anti-abortion billboard without her knowledge. In another case, a farmer sued Getty Images, among others, after a picture of him holding a goose appeared on joke birthday cards. And in a case very similar to my own, a married woman sued Match.com after her face appeared in an advertisement for the dating site. Were she and I victims of anything other than our own stupidity? And if so, whom should I be suing—and for how much dough?
To begin answering these questions, I needed to know who, exactly, was selling my image. (At this point, Patrick didn’t care much about the ads, except to point out that he looked really, really good as a single guy.) When the photo was taken, it was not intended to be a stock photo—Jenny just wanted some fresh images of couples to add to her online portfolio, as she often works as a wedding photographer. But a few weeks after we spent a pleasant half-hour or so making goofy poses in our living room and backyard, Jenny sent an email asking if we would sign model releases because the stock agency she works with had notified her that it was in the market for some “trendy couples.” That’s how it works: Every month or so, she’ll get an email saying there’s demand for “kid athletes and their moms” or “grandparents with grandkids.” If she has any shots to match, she sends them in.
If Patrick and I had any doubts about this, I don’t remember discussing them. We signed the contracts without reading them. No printed copies seem to exist, but I did find the attachment hanging in the far reaches of my Gmail account, filled with phrases like “I hereby irrevocably grant” the photographer and Corbis “the unrestricted right to use my appearance, form, likeness and voice … whether now or hereafter devised, throughout the world, in perpetuity.”
To help with my investigation, Jenny pointed me to the website of Corbis, the huge stock company that owned Veer, her particular agency. I spent the next hour or so wading through thousands of photos, trying to find the picture of me that had turned up online and worried my friends. I found pictures of a “couple practicing yoga together,” then “three generation family smiling together,” and, finally, a whole set of “woman eating salad.” Each one would cost a user $20 for posting online, and as much as $1,095 to reprint it on a billboard. What sort of label or caption would my picture get, and how much would I cost?
Eventually I found a photo of me and Patrick, trendily holding hands in the street. The caption read, “Trendy couple holding hands in the street.” We were selling at a base rate of $45.
But this wasn’t the image that HowAboutWe had used for its campaign. No, that was “Couple laughing,” another of the eight Reyhan-and-Patrick photos available on the site. The mix of fascination and embarrassment that had defined the experience for me thus far deepened as I scrolled through them: “Happy couple;” “Couple sitting on hillside;” “Couple sitting at home on couch;” et cetera. In addition to a title, every image had keywords. For “Couple laughing” these read like found poetry: facial expression / human relationships / smiling / headgear.
OK, I’d found the pictures online. But Jenny couldn’t tell me who else might have bought our pictures. She gets a statement when her images sell, but these take the form of an incomprehensible jumble of letters and numbers. (Even for a photographer, stock images can be a kind of black hole.)
Having tapped Jenny for the meager information she could provide, my next step was to contact the stock agency itself. It was an unproductive and apparently unusual event. Thad Westhusing, vice president of Veer, had no information to share with me, though he did inform me that he rarely hears from models. “It’s really the photographer who has the relationship to the stock agency,” he said.
According to Simon Frankel, a copyright lawyer in San Francisco, the legal language in my model release form did not bode well for future litigation. He could not recall any court cases deciding in favor of a model who had signed away her rights as unambiguously as I had. “It’s hard to see what your claim would be,” he said. “Consent is critical as a defense to a claim.”
At this point, any pleasurable frisson from the inadvertent modeling gig was gone. I tried another lawyer, Carolyn E. Wright, who maintains a website devoted to photo-law issues. She told me the same thing as Frankel, with an added dose of condescension. Now I was feeling queasy and confused. Jenny had done her best to make us look happy and shiny, but I am ridiculously unphotogenic as a rule (eyes closed, chin-forward; Tyra has taught me nothing). How could this be happening to me, of all people?
When I expressed my wonderment about being chosen as an online dating model to Brian Schechter, a co-founder of HowAboutWe, he laughed. “That’s the point,” he said, echoing a comment from Westhusing about how the stock industry has been tilting toward “normal” people. HowAboutWe began putting together its national campaign last year. While Schechter didn’t remember choosing the exact images for my particular ad, he said the faces were a mix of actual HowAboutWe members and stock images, with the goal of showing attractive, but approachable, people.
Just as I was feeling good about my industry-approved attractive approachability, Schechter set me straight. Click-throughs and conversion rates for my ads and Patrick’s were low—low enough for the company to start phasing them out. It turned out we weren’t that approachable, and it wasn’t just us—the whole campaign was getting pulled. “The grid is what we’re moving away from,” Schechter said, mentioning that they’d been doing some new photo shoots with professional models.
When I told Patrick the good news—that the ads were going away—he wasn’t very excited. “I just regret signing the release,” he said. I do, too. The HowAboutWe campaign was fairly harmless and mostly funny, but after looking deeper into the stock-photo industry, I’d realized that worse things could happen. Easily. Our faces might be conscripted for any purpose, to sell almost any product, in any medium, with any modification, for a duration described by my release as “perpetuity.”
We probably won’t even know the next time our images get bought. This is both disturbing and common: In talks with professional photographers, I learned that even famous photos are hard to protect with copyright claims. We live in a time when stock photos function like the visual equivalent of Muzak—ubiquitous and invisible, easy to find and impossible to remember. As they spread, and as we acquire more and more devices on which to view them, it’s tempting for an unwilling model to just throw up her hands. For now, I’m glad to know that if my boyfriend has to appear on another online dating ad, I might get to be right there with him, frozen in Internet amber as a “trendy couple holding hands.” At least that’s how I feel right now. It might not be so amusing if Patrick and I ever were to break up.