When Martha Rial traveled to Tanzania 20 years ago to document the refugee crises facing the people of Rwanda and Burundi, she had little idea that her images still would be circulating on the internet more than two decades later.
But her photographs in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, and they have resonated with people in countless ways — and not always for the better.
One image, in particular, stands out. Thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees stream past, carrying all of their possessions in their hands, on their heads and tied to bicycles. Faces on the nearest people are visible, but the line of people behind them stretches over a hill on the horizon.
“There’s fear, there’s anger, there’s uncertainty, and that image seems to speak to a lot of people,” Rial said. “People seem to connect to it. Some of the people who steal it and take it, see different things in it and they use it for their own means.”
Most recently, the Myanmar military’s department of public relations and psychological warfare misused the image when it published a book of propaganda aimed at refugees in the ongoing Rohingya crisis, Reuters reported.
Information in the book was sourced to the military’s “True News” unit, but a Reuters investigation discovered three images — including Rial’s — were not what the military claimed. The military had taken her image, converted it to black-and-white, and given it a new caption, saying it shows Bengalis intruding into Myanmar.
“They’re using it to fan the fires of racism,” Rial told me.
Unfortunately, in this digital fake news age, people take images off the internet all the time and use them for all sorts of purposes. Sometimes, they use them maliciously, but other times they lazily grab them for publications or presentations.
“It happens way too frequently,” said Post-Gazette managing editor Sally Stapleton, who served as a senior photo editor at AP overseeing a team of photographers that did Pulitzer-winning work. “Institutions, businesses, governments, individuals and even journalists on social media use visual content they have no permission to use.”
Before the Myanmar military took Rial’s image, Anders Behring Breivik used the same photograph in his angry manifesto against society before launching a terror attack in Norway that killed 77 people in 2011. Again, he twisted the photo’s true meaning to his own purposes.
Rial said her images related to Marcellus Shale gas drilling have also been misused frequently by people with strong feelings on either side of the issue. Another time, she discovered a New York foundation had reprinted her image of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto without permission. After she confronted them, the foundation agreed to pay for using the photograph.
Too often, photographers and news organizations lack the money and time required to hire a lawyer to sue for damages or to get the thieves to stop using the image.
“You can put out cease and desists and warnings about it to be removed or they’ll have to pay for it, but often times … once the photo is out and in the public domain, it’s really hard to corral that again,” said Nathan Hoerschelmann, a lawyer who works with the American Society of Media Photographers.
Around the same time, Facebook banned 20 individuals and organizations in Myanmar from using the social media site, including the military’s commander-in-chief and its television network. Facebook said it had removed 46 pages and 12 accounts for “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Then, after all of the media attention, something truly unusual happened.
Myanmar’s military issued an apology: “It was found that two photos were incorrectly published,” it said in a statement, adding, “We sincerely apologize to the readers and owners of the photographs for the mistake.”
Rial said she felt stunned because groups so rarely acknowledge the theft or do anything about it.
“Often the excuse is, ‘I saw it on the internet,’” Rial said. “But that doesn’t give you permission just because you saw it on the web. It’s always upsetting when it happens but I’m not really surprised anymore, especially with that image.”
The Post-Gazette owns Rial’s images from that reporting trip, and Stapleton shared her surprise.
“An apology is almost unheard of,” she told me in an e-mail. “Most offenders, even from organizations which should know better, just shrug it off. And news organizations and media attorneys can spend inordinate amounts of time getting culprits to right their wrongs.”
The Myanmar military’s apology spreads awareness and shows some accountability, Rial said. But she held out little hope that it would stop other people from copying and pasting images without permission.
“It’s just frustrating and it’s disappointing,” she told me, “but you also feel somewhat helpless too.”