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.