Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.
I don't know what time Meagan Kunert, a Conway, Arkansas, wedding photographer, went to sleep Tuesday night. I can only surmise from her last online posts that day that it was a night like any other. After a long day of caring for her children, juggling and organizing her upcoming work schedule, and updating her website, Facebook page, and Flickr account with stunning photographs of recent weddings, she must have retired for the night without the slightest hunch about what was going to be waiting for her the next morning.
In Vancouver, B.C., the night was a couple of hours younger. Another wedding photographer, Amber Hughes, had received a disturbing note from a colleague. He'd found a photographer who was featuring Hughes' work on her website and claiming it as her own. Hughes visited the website, and she was shocked at what she saw. According to tweets she posted from around 10:00 pm to midnight (Vancouver time), she found Kunert had posted an entire wedding in her portfolio that had actually been shot by Hughes. Then Hughes found another of her weddings. And another. And an engagment session. At around 10:15 pm, she tweeted from her @amberhughes account, "I'm appalled by the reposting of my images by @meagankphotos as her own work."
Fellow photographers saw Hughes' tweets, and they began re-tweeting and discussing the situation online. When it was picked up and re-tweeted by lighting expert David Hobby (@strobist) to his 65,000+ followers, the story grew exponentially and started reaching photographers around the world. Several wedding photographers visited Kunert's site to find their work featured in her portfolio, as well.
By the time the sun rose on the U.S., Kunert's Twitter account had been bombarded by negative mentions. Her business Facebook page was awash with comments calling her out on her deceit. The pitchforks-and-torches crowd had found her pages on Pinterest, Google+, Flickr, and LinkedIn. Photographers were posting that they had emailed her demanding that she remove their work from her website or she would risk immediate legal repercussions. Her web hosting company yanked down her website entirely in response to the complaints.
About that time, Kunert woke up.
Her Twitter account was first to go. Then the negative comments on her Facebook page began to disappear. Then the whole page disappeared. Pinterest, gone. Flickr too. Even her husband, who said he had absolutely no clue about any of this when he was confronted on Twitter, eventually protected his account so only approved followers can see it. This could not have been a good day in Conway.
As of about 6 o'clock Wednesday evening (5 o'clock Arkansas, 3 o'clock Vancouver), Hughes posted that the situation is under control. She said she has been in contact with Kunert, and they have buried the hatchet. Hughes said via Twitter that she has no intention to sue, and given the fact that she is in Canada, a suit might not have been feasible anyway. According to Hughes, Kunert planned to phone and apologize to all the people whose work she claimed as her own, and then re-launch her website for one primary purpose -- a public apology. At around 6:30 pm Eastern, her business Facebook page came back up, with an apology prominently posted at the top.
Another day in the life, driven by social media.
So what can we take away from this? If you are attempting to conduct business online, this "fauxtographer" fiasco does contain a few lessons you need to keep in mind.
Viral happens, but you don't make it happen.
If you've heard people use the word "viral" but you were never exactly sure what it meant -- this is it. Something goes "viral" when it is so compelling (in a good way or a bad way) that people share it with others. But viral isn't something you create right out of the box. If your goal is to create a viral marketing campaign, stop. "Viral" is not a goal. Your goal should be to create a good campaign, a funny campaign, an important campaign. Make sure the content you create fills a need for your target audience, and the viral part (the sharing) will naturally follow.
You're not going to get away with it.
Seriously. Don't do bad things. The world is becoming more and more interconnected and transparent every single day, and someone will catch you. The CEO of Yahoo is under pressure to step down because he lied on his resume, saying he holds a degree that he doesn't. Certainly the top officer of a search engine should recognize that we simply do not live in a world where you can do that anymore. (The fact that the investor who busted him said he used a "Google search" just adds a sad note of irony to the whole affair.) Be honest, don't plagiarize, and don't try to take credit for work you didn't do.
Photo copyright infringement is a sticky wicket.
Many people are under the false impression that, when it comes to photographs, if it's on the internet it's free. That is not true. You cannot grab a photo from Flickr and use it in an ad or a brochure. The whole issue of photo copyright is far too complex to try to clarify here, but you do need to understand that any photograph you find online was created by, and is owned by, someone. Sometimes it is acceptable to re-post it with proper credit and a link back to the source, but usually you shouldn't re-post it at all. (Pinterest has opened up this whole re-posting thing for further analysis.) You can almost never use a photo in any sort of advertisement or for any other business purpose without paying for it. (For the record, what Kunert did reached far beyond copyright infringement. She didn't just grab photos to decorate her website without proper credit, she claimed them as samples of her work and used them to solicit business. She made up names and locations and anecdotes about how much fun she'd had with each "awesome cute couple" she had "worked with," in a level of deception that borders on disturbing.)
The lesson is this. Meagan Kunert went from being a relatively anonymous wedding photographer with a happy little business (albeit one built on a massive lie) to being reviled as a fraud and being forced to apologize in front of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in about eighteen hours. The power of the web, and of social media in particular, can be absolutely overwhelming. Utilize it properly, and it can spread the message you want to spread in ways you might never even have imagined. Just don't lie.
The facts in this article were gathered entirely from online posts by the people involved. None of them were personally interviewed for this story.