Early Wednesday morning in her Montana home, photographer Ami Vitale’s phone chirped with a fresh message. Her friend had just pinged her, and the news made the National Geographic photographer, who has shot in nations from Afghanistan to Ethiopia to Tibet, get on Twitter immediately.
She punched in the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, and saw it: her photography. Everywhere.
She couldn’t believe it. She’d heard that 276 Nigerian girls had been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram three weeks ago and supported any effort to get them back — but not like this.
Three of her photographs were used to represent the tragedy, but the women in them aren’t Nigerian. They’re from Guinea-Bissau, a country more than 2,000 miles from Nigeria. And the photographs were from 2011, when Vitale had spent months in villages in West Africa, earning respect and trust the hard way, with patience and persistence.
“People trust us to come into their lives, and they share their stories with us, and when their images are used out of context like this, it’s just the worst,” Vitale told The Washington Post. Indeed, it wasn’t copyright infringement that bothered her the most — though that was definitely a concern — it was misrepresentation.
“THIS IMAGE USED WITHOUT PERMISSION!” she tweeted early Wednesday morning at an Twitter user who apparently first tweeted Vitale’s picure. “SHE IS NOT NIGERIAN AND HAS BEEN MISREPRESENTED TO USE FOR YOUR CAMPAIGN. TAKE DOWN!”
But it was too late. Vitale’s work had already been tweeted by thousands of people, including singer Chris Brown and even the BBC. The misrepresentation is the second time this week that a photograph has been wrongly used in a high-profile news story. Fox News was faulted on Monday for airing images of grieving Sherpas during a segment on the sunken South Korean ferry. Highlighting how far misinformation can go viral, the rampant tweeting of Vitale’s photography raises disturbing questions about the accuracy of social media campaigns and the growing difficulty in discerning fact from fiction.
“It’s a pretty sad view of the world,” says Vitale, who first gave an interview to the New York Times Lens Blog. “I know these families really well and you go in and tell people you want to share their story, and then to see think, ‘What if they saw their image was used this way?’ It’s very impoverished where I took those pictures, and I’m pretty sure they don’t know about this.”
Some viral streams are difficult to trace back to its source, but not this one. The Twitter account @imahephzibah watermarked the misappropriated picture. According to this Twitter exchange between Vitale, @imahephzibah and BBC reporter Anne-Marie Tomchak — who also used the doctored photo — the Nigerian man had originally taken the picture from the Alexia Foundation, a social-justice photojournalism organization. The photo is uploaded to the Alexia Web site here, along with another Vitale picture that turned into this:
Or take a look at how the now-viral Vitale image morphed into this BBC tweet:
Vitale is unsure how to get everyone to stop tweeting images of children in Guinea-Bissau to represent the abducted Nigerian girls, but said it’s important that people know the truth.
“I think we need to be open and honest,” she said. “People need to know. I want it on the record that this was not something I agreed to, and it’s a slippery slope we’re going down that now everything is available online. … You can’t just take and use any picture out of context.”
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Ami Vitale took the misappropriated photograph in 2011.