Photographic Archaeology: How To Find the Source of an Image on the Internet

Are you sharing responsibly?

Most of the content that gains traction on the Internet, whether message boards, social media sites like Google+ and Facebook or through e-mail chains (although becoming less popular) has an origin. A lot of people take for granted the fact that someone took the time and effort to create this work. Instead, they share the image with reckless abandon as if it was their own original work.

Now, that’s not to say that everyone that downloads and image to their computer and shares it on a social network is necessarily in the wrong. A lot of the images that are found throughout the web are not copyrighted and are usually “modifications” of existing images. Think of all of the memes where people take an existing image and populate their own text on top. Just because they captioned the image does not make it theirs, per say.

I was approached today by +Bud Hoffman who pointed out that he shared an image he had found on the Internet and was surprised by the amount of interaction and attention it drew. Bud shared an image of two men smoking and standing beneath a mural to make it look as though they were being buried at a funeral.

Image from
Image from

In the comment thread of Bud’s post, someone alleged–in a foreign language–that the content was theirs and he was in the wrong for sharing it without their approval. Bud came to me asking for advice on how to handle the situation.

In order to trace the roots of the image, I downloaded it to my computer and used Google’s new “find like images” feature to upload it in the search engine and find photographs similar to the one I had searched for. The results were astounding. It appeared as though the image had reached almost every corner of the web. However, one lead brought me back to where it all started.

I found an article by on the image which divulged that it was part of an anti-smoking campaign by the Everest Brand Solutions agency in Mumbai, India for their client, the Cancer Patients Aid Association. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, which you can find here (

The point is, don’t believe everything people tell you. Part of the magic of the Internet is the ability to share. Of course, as laws in the United States and other countries start exploring the topic of digital sharing more deeply, the way we do this may or may not change. That is up to us and how we curate our information.

If you find an image that you know is copyrighted, maybe you should refrain from downloading and uploading it. Respect digital rights management mechanisms that are already in place. Certain artists make money by driving traffic to their website and cashing in on the ads that are displayed. If you remove their work and post it where their ads are not visible, they are not collecting the revenue needed to support their work, and they might quickly find themselves looking for new work.

Of course, this isn’t anything new. The digital copyright debate has been going on for the last decade.

The bottom line is, if you are going to share something, at least make an effort to find the source. I admit, I have not been doing this as rigorously as I would like. No one expects you to spend 4 hours looking for the original source of an animated cat GIF, in fact, I doubt anyone cares. But, if you are going to share something, share it responsibly. If you see that someone took the time to find something, give them credit for it, use the retweet or share feature. Why let something lose its potential for virality when you have the opportunity to “pass it along?”

It is not always easy to find where something came from, but it is always very easy to credit the person or website that shared it with you. If everyone shares responsibly, we might be able to trace some interesting things back to the roots and who knows what doors that could open…

2 thoughts on “Photographic Archaeology: How To Find the Source of an Image on the Internet”

  1. Hmmm… quite an interesting read. Got be careful with those images you spread around. I don’t really do that, and that’s probably why I haven’t received a situation like told in the article.

    When I use images, I make sure to use those that are paid for the license or the credit is used to link back to the original photographer.

    Agreed, source it.

  2. I have a friend who is an amazing photographer and has quite the wedding photography business (he was named one of the best wedding photographers by The Knot). He’s extremely web savvy, so he takes care to watermark his images, unobtrusively, of course, and when he shares them on Facebook, he adds a message to “please don’t crop out the logo.” Of course, being as good as he is, people will refer him to their friends.

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