“How I Ended Up with my Face On a McDonald’s Advert in China – A Cautionary Tale”

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Hi! My name is Joost Bastmeijer, a photo journalist currently traveling through Africa. I’m also the editorial coordinator of MENDO, and Amsterdam-based company that initiates, creates and designs photo books.

As a photographer and photo book editor myself, I know how annoying it can be that people are getting more and more aware of their rights when it comes to photography. Also in African countries, people I’d like to portray often want money if I ask them if I could take a picture. Their reasoning is often: “I’m not sure what you’re going to do with this picture” and “You’re going to make money off this, so you need to pay me as well.”

This can be annoying, because a lot of picture-perfect moments are lost while you are having these kinds of conversations – every spontaneity and realness is gone. At the other hand: of course, these are fair points. Because yes, I sometimes make money off the pictures I sell to magazines and no, you shouldn’t just comply with any stranger that wants to take a picture of you.

So now, every time I’m on an assignment, I’m wearing a lot of consent forms with me for anyone I’d like to photograph. I’ve also worked on big, international photo book publications, for which we could only use pictures that actually came with a rather complicated, signed ‘model release form’. This is also annoying, if you know how much great street photography is out there – 70% of it can’t be used. Afraid for any kind of claim, book publishers rather go for the safer option: we will not publish any portraits, as long as the portrayed haven’t signed a model consent form.

As a photographer or editor, it can be hard to see it from another perspective: the perspective of the portrayed. So when I came across this eye-opening Twitter thread, I had to share it. In short: a South African woman was portrayed for a University photography project, the photographer sold all the (rights of the) pictures to a stock images libary, and now the woman sees her face on hundreds of adverts, websites and even on a Chinese McDonald’s menu. And the most disturbing thing is: she even signed one of these model consent forms! To read her whole, cautionary story, click below or look it up on Twitter.

Shubnum Khan:

So today I’m going to tell you the story of How I Ended Up with my Face On a McDonald’s Advert in China – A Cautionary Tale. Six or so years ago, a friend in Canada posted a pic on my FB wall to say she found an advert of me promoting immigration in a Canadian newspaper.

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Naturally I was shocked and… confused. I studied the pic and agreed that it was me. Now I didn’t mind that I was promoting immigration in Canada but I couldn’t understand why my face was in a paper all the way on that side of the world.

After some wtf moments, a friend reminded me we did a photoshoot a few years ago. When I was at university I heard about a free photoshoot by a CT photographer who promised us professional portraits in exchange for shooting us. It was called the 100 Faces Shoot & the photographer took photos of 100 various faces of all ages & races in Durban. Young friends & I were excited; we signed a release form at the start (I thought it was to give him permission to use the photos for his portfolio). We didn’t read the small print. I know. It was stupid.

So I contact the photographer and he says, yeah, we signed away these photos (we took 3 photos – straight faced, smiling and crazy) and they’re now stock photos that he sells. He says I might start popping up in places. So I start a reverse google search of these images & well, it feels like I sell everything! If I’m not welcoming immigrants to Canada, I’m selling carpets in NYC, leading treks in Cambodia, or looking for love in France.

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Let’s start with something light: here I’m the face for dental sedation in Virginia Beach. Innocent enough, you say, but then I get into the hard stuff and I’m all about getting rid of those pesky eye bags. Haloxyl is the stuff to inhibit facial muscle tightening and is the buzzword (obvs) in anti-ageing eye cream.

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And then suddenly all this facial work has you getting attention and you’re Dina M, with a baby and post pregnancy melasma until Dermolyte comes to the rescue and gives you photoshopped finished skin.

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But also, some hyper-pigmentation just doesn’t leave and then you must resign yourself to your fate with a sad glare,

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but once that’s all treated you can grace some book and magazine covers.

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I can also take on new identities. The most shocking of these are adverts to teach & care for kids – so who is actually with the kids? When I asked the photographer abt this, he says I signed away rights to ‘distortion of character including false names’.

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I’ve also looked for love online on a French dating website. This roughly translates to: ‘I’m here, do not click too hard I’m fragile. Here I am looking prince charming of my dreams, who comes on his white horse to steal my heart…’

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Again, the face of positive immigration in Uruguay. (TBH I don’t really mind the ads promoting immigration).

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And the list goes on; numerous testimonials for different products, someone spotted a poster at a bustop in London, posters for McDonald’s in India, China and S Korea, banking brochures, eye clinics, make up websites, laser eye treatments etc.

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So beside the fact that all of us were never paid for ANY of these advertisements, there’s also the misleading and downright dishonesty of promoting these products. Eventually I contacted the photographer and said I didn’t know I signed up for any of this, he explained he was sorry I felt hard done by but it was all legal & explained to us beforehand (I really don’t rem anyone telling me my pic would become a stockphoto & that it could be distorted), but he agreed to take it down from his site since I complained as an author I could be recognised (I don’t think this was a legit excuse but it worked in making him take it down). He also said I could still keep popping up where my image was already purchased.

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The thing is I’ve laughed over the years about this and it’s a great party story and I do find some of the images hilarious and I still laugh when people find me randomly advertising for teeth implants while browsing a paper in New York, but now that I’m older and more assertive & aware of power plays and manipulation I can easily see how we were all used – a whole gallery of free photographs for this photographer to sell and we haven’t made a cent for all the things WE’VE advertised. Also this could have gone badly – my photo could have come up in a wrong place (I mean, the right to ‘distort photo and character!’) is scary af and so if anything, I hope my story is also a cautionary tale to be careful what you sign because while it’s occasionally funny to randomly come across your face on a board at the McDonalds in China, you also don’t want to be Dina M, complaining about post pregnancy melasma to the internet or calling out for prince charming on a white horse (ok, that bit is okay).

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It’s also pretty telling of how easily you can be exploited in this new age & how startlingly deceptive everything is. Those testimonials are fake, those adverts are fake. Your holiday tour guide, your tutor or your future bride could just be some random uni student living her life in a small town in S Africa not knowing about how her image is being used. So, if anything use my story as a cautionary tale. Don’t sign up for free photoshoots, read what you sign and also don’t believe most of the things you read on the internet.

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Be clever. Be aware. Don’t get caught up. I’m sure I could have made some money out of this, but instead I’m out there promoting acne cream while someone else gets the profits.

And now you know.

There are more pics – some I forgot to save, some I’ve heard of and of course, those that I don’t even know about. Their appearances have certainly been lessening after the photographer told me he took them down so that’s been welcome. So, while you’re here, if you want to read about some of the other strange things that have happened to me, have a look at this story.

Would like to start collecting all the images together in one place (@saf_p started something a while back and we’d like to update it) so if you’ve ever seen this stock photo in an advert or recall seeing it somewhere over the years, pls let me know here. x

 Also see Joost Bastmeijer’s blog or follow him on Facebook or Instagram.