Allowing People To Steal Your Work Could Lead to the Biggest Break of Your Career.

Let’s face it, the world of photography has forever been changed through the use of creative platforms such as Google, Instagram, and Twitter. Never before have we been in a more accessible and demanding world with a need for instant images, instant content, and competitive creativity.
This phenomenon should never discourage you, rather, it should inspire you to use the platforms that we have at our fingertips, literally, to get your work out there and be noticed by millions.
“after all, your worth it, right?”
Another thing I want you, as a budding photographer, to understand, is that watermarking your images is so 2006. I mean come on…what’s a little misuse of your images here and there if it means been discovered, right?

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Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash
This takes me back…
The year was 2012. Asia. Malaysia to be exact. There I was walking through the mass crowds in the famous capital of Kuala Lumpur. I was walking with a friend of mine after we had just enjoyed a meal at one of my favorite restaurants downtown.
Being pre-occupied and in deep conversation, I was present to my surroundings by peering casually into the shop windows I passed by when I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a photo that looked very familiar to me.
It’s one of those moments when you see something, and it makes you take a second, third, and even sometimes a forth take just so your brain can process what it is you are actually witnessing.
I continued to walk passed the window for a beat or two, when within seconds I had completely frozen in my path, seemingly in order for my brain to process what I had just seen.
My friend looked at me and said; “Are you ok?… What’s wrong?”
I slowly backed up to the shop window, and without skipping a beat I peered directly in to get a second eye-full.
“and what I saw inside, shocked me, puzzled me and inspired me all at the same time.”
“I am sure that that photo is mine.”, I said.
My friend giggled back at me and said, “Yeah, sure thing. What would this place be doing with one of your images?”
Standing there I was checking every detail inside the image to be absolutely certain that it was indeed my image. After all, how embarrassing would it be for me if I walked into a shop and accused them of stealing from me when in fact the image wasn't mine in the first place.
The shop was a travel agency, and they had been promoting two things.
  1. An advertising campaign to promote travel and vacation locations in the Philippines, and…
  2. Tickets to one of the northern islands of Malaysia called Langkawi.
Now what shocked me about this particular image they were using, was that it had nothing to do with either of the locations. Moreover, it was a photo that included a very influential and well-known model as the subject that I had taken the year before to promote a very well known international swimsuit brand.
My friend said to me; “Which one is your image?”
“The one right there, promoting the Philippines.”, I said.
I was, at that moment, absolutely positive it was my shot, although whoever had used it for this purpose had re-edited it so badly that it was almost unrecognizable. Almost.
“What are you going to do?”, my friend asked.
“I’m going to confront them and asked them where they got the image from,” I replied.
Upon walking into the travel agency I was greeted by one of the staff who welcomed me in and asked how they could help.
I responded; “Oh I was just walking past and noticed your beautiful window and wondered where you source your photo’s from that you use for your advertising campaigns?”
“Oh, I am not too sure”, she replied, “I know that the owner’s son is a photographer, and a lot of the images that we use come from him”.
“Is that right? No kidding…” I responded with an increasing level of doubt.
“Is it possible that I speak to the owner or perhaps the photographer that takes your images? That would be so helpful to me.” I asked politely.
“Sure!”, she responded. “I will go get the owner as she is just in the backroom”.
I waited for about 2 minutes for the owner to come out to talk to me. In the meantime, I was going over every possible scenario in my head in order to counter the possible reactions I might get or, even worse, any confrontation that I might encounter.
Finally, the owner came out.
“Hi, my name is Jan, I’m the owner, how may I help you?” She said.
I politely responded; “Hi, my name is Vivian and I was talking to your lovely salesperson here and wondered who is responsible for all of the lovely photos that you have in your window?”
“Oh, thank you!”, she responded, “Actually my son is a photographer and he takes many of those photos we use. Actually, his partner works for an agency that takes photos for travel and lifestyle magazines.”
“No kidding?”, I replied cheekily. “So, if I was to tell you that I am really interested in one of those photos that you have in your window, do you think you would remember where it came from?”
“I’m not sure, which photo are you talking about?”, she questioned.
“Oh, the one advertising Langkawi and the Philippines, that's my favorite.”, I replied.
Now, I bet you're wondering why I am being seemingly casual about all of this? Well, to be honest, she was being really nice and as they say, ‘you get more flies with honey’. Plus, I wanted to see what amount of bullsh#t was going to be spun around the acquisition of this image, if any, and I was curious as to where the rest of this conversation was headed.
“That one is a great photo, we get many compliments on that photo. Let me ask my son about it. Tommy!”, she shouted, “Come here please, there is someone here asking me about that photo you took for Langkawi.”
Wait, what? The photo YOU took for Langkawi? Temperature rising inside my body as I began to sweat.

Enter Tommy:
“Hello, yeah that photo is great. But I didn't take it, I just edited it. I think we got it from some professional photographers' website or something — it was just a simple download from Google I think. Actually, my partner found it, I just edited it.”, he said casually.
“Ahhh, that makes sense.”, I said, “Do you remember the name of the photographer by any chance?”
“No I don't know”, he replied quickly, “Actually I can find out as I have their website saved on my computer, they are a really great photographer so we use a lot of their stuff…”
I had to take a deep breath and calm down. Clearly these guys were using images that they had found all over the internet to promote their travel business, without contacting the photographer for the rights.
You would be surprised how much this happens around the world. People don't actually mean anything by it, they don't do it maliciously, but what they are doing isn't right and needs to be pointed out when it happens.
“Yeah, here it is…its, umm…Vivian something…I think…yeah, “Who is Vivian Grey?”, he eventually got out.
“Ahhh, yes, Vivian. I know them.”, I replied.
At this stage of the conversation, my friend had begun to lean in a little closer, showing more interest, clearly anticipating how I was planning to handle the situation.
“Can you do me a favor and find out from their website if there is a contact email or bio of them so I can contact them?”, I asked.
“Sure, no problem.”, Tommy responded. ”Let me see…”, He continued searching though the website of Vivian Grey to see where he could maybe find a contact number or bio for me. Then all of a sudden he paused.
“Oh wait, there is a contact with Vivian’s agent here on the website. And, wow, lucky for you, their agent has a Malaysian number.”, he said happily. “Just wait a sec and I’ll call it, maybe they will answer.”
“Great!”, I replied with eagerness and anticipation.
I was so interested to hear what Vivian’s agent was going to say, LOL.
Tommy held his mobile to his ear waiting for the phone to answer. After a few rings, I noticed his face lighting up with enjoyment as his body language signaled a successful connection through to Vivian’s agent.
“Hello?”, Tommy said shyly, “My name is Tommy and I am a big fan of Vivian’s work, am I speaking to Vivian’s agent?
There was a long pause, I wasn’t sure what my agent was saying on the other end, but Tommy’s face was smiling brightly.
“Oh really?”, said Tommy surprisingly, “Vivian is also here in KL? Wow, I would love for them to pop into my shop to say hi, we are all fans here. My girlfriend works for an agency for Tourism Malaysia, it would be great to have Vivian here to discuss maybe doing a photoshoot with our small travel agency.”
I knew at this moment exactly how my agent was going to handle this one. So as the conversation continued, I took my mobile phone out of my pocket and waited.
“Ok, ok great!”, Tommy said loudly, “So you will call Vivian and arrange to see if it’s possible?… Excellent, thank you very much!”
Tommy finished his call with my agent and went on to explain that maybe I could be in luck, as Vivian is in KL currently on assignment.
Just as he was talking, you guessed it, my phone rang.
I excused myself briefly to answer the call.
“Hello, Vivian speaking.”, I said deliberately.
“Oh hello, Angie! Yes, yes I heard all about it. Actually, wait one second and I’ll put you on to Tommy.”
As confused as I am sure my agent was, nothing could compare with the confusion that was fast spreading across the face of Tommy. This was priceless!
“Hello?”, Tommy said cautiously, “Yes, wait…Did I just speak to you? Wait, I am so confused.”
Then all of a sudden, like God Himself had reached down from the heavens above to turn on the light inside Tommy’s head — BANG! The penny dropped.
The reaction of Tommy and his family finally getting that Vivian was standing right there in front of them was such a fantastic moment. My friend was laughing so hard and everyone was talking over each other and pointing and replaying the moment that had just occurred over and over again through muddled conversation.
“Oh my God, Vivian!!!?”, Tommy yelled, “Vivian Grey! Oh goodness me, you look completely different from how I have pictured you in my head.”
I took that as a compliment.
The conversation continued in-store for the next 10 minutes. We discussed my career and where I started and why I was in KL. We discussed the importance of crediting a photographer's work and the reasons why there are sites created specifically for paid commercial content versus free content etc…
What was really great about this experience, is that Tommy and his whole family completely understood what they had done and why it didn’t work. I get why they did it, but what I was so proud of was to see that they got why it shouldn’t happen and why an artist's work should be credited and paid for especially if their images are being used in a commercial sense.
Not only did Tommy and his Mom agree to take down the image, but they also agreed to only use images from paid sites using memberships, and to also place a credit on the base of the photos that they will use in the future.
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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
But the story doesn't stop there. As I said in the beginning, watermarks are so 2006, and they are. Don’t watermark your images, ever. You want your work to be seen by the world exactly the way you created them. Not with a large faded or semi-faded name or logo over it. Gross!
“I also said that having people “steal” your images and use them everywhere could just be the thing that lands you in a position to be discovered or that leads you to get the break that your career deserves. And this story is living proof of that.”

About 4 days after I had met Tommy and his family in the travel shop in KL, I received a phone call from my agent. She had been contacted by the producers that handle Tourism Malaysia’s international account. They had seen my work and been referred by Tommy’s girlfriend to check out my IG account and review some of my work. They were impressed.
They offered me a long-term contract with them to shoot their Tourism Malaysia campaign which was going to be featured on Discovery Channel and across 130 countries around the world.
Additionally, they would be paying for the rights to my images to be used on billboards, posters, and magazines in every major international airport in the world.
Now, if you know how photographers usually get paid, then you understand how exciting this was for my career. I benefited from multiple sources of income for my work, not to mention an expense account to be used for travel, gear, food, accommodation, and insurance.
Sure, I had worked for some great brands in my career, but what makes this brand so unique is the way it came about. You really never know where your next big job could come from. I mean, you can focus on working towards a goal to shoot for someone that you admire, for sure — but gold like this isn’t found every day and you have to be open to an experience like this happening to you.
A job like this, if you haven’t had a large commercial account before, can be the one thing that places you on the international map of success and will fast track you to being recognized as a serious player in the international commercial photography world. For the rest of your life.