What Happens When a Viral Image Spreads Beyond Your Control

What Happens When a Viral Image Spreads Beyond Your Control

When you make a photograph as part of a personal project, the likelihood is that you'll want to share it with your peers. Often the concept is as important as the final image, so the title or description must sit alongside it for the picture to be taken in context. So what happens when a picture accidentally goes viral with no credit to the artist and more specifically, no mention of the theory behind it?

When a photograph appears on the internet, no matter how loud a person can shout 'copyright', the public often will run amock and consider it their property. Sharing your work online is a risky act, and that work will often lose itself in the many weaves of the web - often appearing uncredited on places like Pinterest, Tumblr, or even on clothing and stolen by other photographers advertising it as their own! Yet the internet is generally the only way to be heard in a digital world increasing in noise. It is an unavoidable, brilliant but dangerously anonymous place.  

When Welsh photographer Shanea Gaiger (Harpyimages) worked with her youngest daughter as part of her 'Outside Influences' series, little did she know how far the image would be globally spread. Shared over 30,000 times in less than 24 hours before making it to the front pages of websites like Imgur and Plurk, Gaiger's concept soon lost its personal meaning and original context with comments from strangers plaguing the image, "praying" for the good health of the child and taking the opportunity to slam the size zero people amongst us. Many artists would be overjoyed with the idea of their pictures going viral, their hard work spread indefinitely for many more viewers to enjoy. We have even witnessed geat success from viral images, videos and projects. However, what many don’t recognise is that the term 'going viral' often comes at a cost. Internet trolls use their computers as a faceless tool to attack. Keyboard warriors come out from the cracks to point controversy in everything and even those who would usually support a story built on its own merit, are hidden from the truth and therefore don't understand it. As humans, it is usually the case that what we don't understand, is what we fear and therefore hate the most; attacking and branding concepts without a second thought for the creator or concept behind them.

Harpyimages explained to me how her feelings were a mixture of panic and anxiety over losing control of her concept. "Most photographers would be over the moon about this and in a way I am, on the other hand, I am mortified," she said. "The whole premise of the project as a whole was/is to build concepts based on the perceived and sometimes real stereotypes fed to us by the media about how the media itself affects children. The fashion image set was just one of four so far... each shot in an almost caricature and over the top style to reflect the very over the top way the media works in reporting the effects of itself... for me, its a little hypocritical."

She rightly points out that television programmes and magazine articles are full to the brim with slimming aids followed by fast food. Beauty products compounded with directions to dress a certain way in order to be considered acceptable by society - the pressure of the media is forever building. "No matter how much we practice self acceptance, we remain bombarded by conflicting images on how we should look. It is confusing for adults, let alone children." So if this was the concept Harpyimages was depicting (and in such a powerful photograph), then why was the image swamped by skinny-bashing model-hatred from outsiders? "What it wasn't was an excuse to slam anyone for their size and shape or perceived weaknesses," Gaiger explained. "It wasn't a personal vendetta against anyone or any group, nor did I think it would be used in various personal crusades to try to tear down others for their looks. The only target, was the media."

How ironic it is to find that the strength of the image has been used by others to pressure, to disrespect and to bully others for their physical appearance - everything the image was originally fighting against. "On the positive side, seeing how people have personally related to the feelings shown in a cathartic way, seeing how people have said they will speak to their children, support them, listen to them and not just brush aside their worries. Explain to their children that who they are, as themselves, is just fine and they don't HAVE to be anything other than themselves, at least they shouldn't have to. If they are happy and healthy then that should be enough. This goes for all and not just children. I hope this story is a lesson that willingness to be less judgemental and less bigoted to anyone with the ability to take the media with a big old pinch of salt...because it can't seem to decide what is 'right' for us either...and that is (at least in my mind) part of the problem."

Perhaps the lesson to us all here is to seek the story before making a judgement, both in a photograph and in every day life.

Image used with permission.

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19 Comments

Jen Brook is fast becoming one of my favorite people. What an insightful and much needed "stop and think". Shanea Gaiger thank you for such a wonderful photographic statement. Wasn't it Marshall McLuhan who said "the medium is the message".

Jen Brook's picture

That's very kind, thank you Carl

Fantastic and a very timely article as it also relates to other current events of the last month or so.

Sorry, but I can't contain myself in saying that the entire article... and the TL;DR quote from it... should be passed around to some of the other contributing writers here at FStoppers.

"Perhaps the lesson to us all here is to seek the story before making a judgement, both in a photograph and in every day life."

Cagomoc Reed's picture

I only can blame the parents on this kind of stuff, issues like this rarely happens in the 50's-80's society had more control of their kids. Parents had more range in disciplining children, on that note.. but yes this is a great photo to open eye of the people that are so blind to what is under their noses, kids shouldn't have to go threw all that misleading judgment and question them selves about the body issues, this photo strongly tells that story in my opinion.

Scott Spellman's picture

I sympathize with Shanea and her message. However, it is impossible not to see how quickly your work and message can be copied and distributed through the world without control. The simplest solution of a watermark and or text on the photo would have created a much better outcome.

Jen Brook's picture

The photographer did post text with her image as part of her wonderful 'Outside Influences' series, however the image made such an impact that it was reposted several times over without her correlating information. I have found a similar problem with my own personal project called Dreamcatcher, shared all over without my blog explaining the concept. It's frustrating but unfortunately it is part of sharing your work online. The saving grace is that the image has stirred a reaction and an unintentional thought is better than no thought at all, right?

Paul Monaghan's picture

I too had something similar with my crazy family photo, it had over 750k views in two days over at redit and lots and lots of comments some good but mostly troll's saying stuff about me, my wife and family.

My wife doesn't really enjoy being in my photo's now due to that, and to be honest all the views really didn't really do anything for my photography but it was a fun when it happened.

Sadly it's not the only photo of mine that was stolen, I sort of gave up trying to chase them.

Jen Brook's picture

Oh how awful! I'm so sorry to hear that Paul. I hope your wife finds solace in the fact that these people are strangers and often only say spiteful things to stir attention back to themselves. Like any school yard bully, I feel sorry for them that it's only through hate that they will ever be short term noticed. Long live the happy folk who enjoy making and sharing hey :)

Paul Monaghan's picture

That's the best way to look at it :), thank you.

Adam Bender's picture

Problem is people remove watermarks with ease these days. Very little photoshop skills required.

Richard Johnson's picture

Jen, I feel this photographers pain. I had a similar experience with my Weapon of Choice project (https://fstoppers.com/portraits/photographer-captures-invisible-pain-ver...). Shanea needs to just keep focus on why she created the image and ignore all the trolls who are just fueled by jealousy. It is very easy to say "I could have done this better" when you did nothing at all. Great job Shanea, and thank you Jen for this article!

Jen Brook's picture

Well said Richard, I totally agree! It's a shame that trolls litter the delights of web these days, but despite any misunderstandings, I hope Shanea goes on to make many more powerful images in her series.

+ 1 first for Richard's above post

It does become daunting, and dare I say disturbing to realize there are so many millions of these types of people in the world(!) Sometime's when you click on a reply to a post made from an FB account, and you think to yourself, "wasn't that guy ahead of me at the super market?"... you can very easily become cynical to even well intended criticism and be leery of human interaction of any kind.

Trolling has become so pervasive, that a large number of people have simply given up in sharing their views and comments. The Guardian did an article recently pointing out that rather than "freedom of speech and the exchange of IDEAS", the Internet has aided in a scared consensus of thought and non-confrontational agreement. With that said, it does appear that there are so many out there with jaded thought processes and intelligence already... you have to wonder whether that is a good result (?!).

As a denizen and early user of the Internet before browsers, my instinct then said it would devolve into something often times polarizing. However I assumed, when the more "normal" people started to use the net instead of just teen-age boys with too much testosterone and geeks with nowhere to use it... it would level out. Stupid me when discovering "normal" wasn't what I thought it was.

Dave Piper's picture

Lovely read - :)

Matt BuckShots's picture

The moment I saw this photo I thought the media was the target. That is just where my brain ended up. Some people's minds go else where. Maybe it is due to one's day to day state of mind. I am always in a state of critiquing commercials, ads, and other media driven material. So me seeing this image today I would have reacted no different than if I saw it yesterday, or last month. Again, its just my normal state of mind to analyze things in that way. My everyday state of mind is probably WAY different from those who thought this image was targeting towards anything other than the media. Sometimes images like this are needed in hopes that people understand just what the media is doing to young children. All things aside, I thought the image was good and the concept was pretty intense. Well done.

Anthony Woodruffe's picture

Powerful images will often stir emotions. As an artist you know you've probably done it right when you get such abundant reactions. People will interpret how they see fit but as this portraits a negative view, the reactions were more likely to be negative too. My initial thoughts were that this was a stab at the fashion industry and designers and not the media. Fashion magazines are not the media they print what they want for a selective audience and advertising is given by the companies.

The fault lies with those responsible for picking the model. They are the ones in control of pushing an ideology and yet it can be argued that they are only hiring based on the requests from above. Someone is to blame but eventually we will reach the CEO. The pictures of the girl cutting herself with the scissors conveys the peer pressure problems virtually all women suffer from and seem so influenced by, where as men in general just don't give two hoots, regardless of how many pictures of strapping, good-looking men they see on TV or in magazines.

The concept is great but if there is a bit of negativity one could highlight, it would be the understanding of the child. Would that not also be an element of exploitation to get someone to do something that they are not fully aware of or understand?

Jen Brook thank you for such a wonderful read. Very well done.

Jen Brook's picture

Thank you for reading it David, hopefully the first of many more :)

Chrismael Caldo's picture

Very informative. Thank you for this...