a cutout of a flower in an instagram frame against a pink and orange sky
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Entertainment

An Instagram-Famous Photographer Promised Beautiful Skies, and Left a Trail of Angry Fans

The platform has become a way for artists like Ryan Shorosky to connect with followers and sell their work. What happens when that transaction doesn’t go as promised?
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
July 19, 2021, 3:05pm

One day shortly after the new year in 2019, Ghazal Sheei posted a photo on her personal Instagram page. The image of a hand holding a pink rose up to a lavender sky was accompanied with a lengthy caption that began as follows. "I bought this print from @ryshorosky in April 2018 - or at least I paid for it," Sheei wrote. The Los Angeles-based real estate agent and photographer claimed she had ordered a print of the rose photo from the photographer, but the print never arrived. "Nine months later, after several back and forths and a couple insincere apologies and excuses from him, he still hasn’t sent it. Actually, he outright stopped responding a few attempts ago," she added, accompanying her post with the hashtags #ryanshoroskyisafraud and #ryanshoroskyscam.

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While the public shaming helped Sheei get her refund, it quickly became clear to her that she was far from the only person who lost money to Shorosky. The comments on her post blew up with others who had also bought prints from him that never arrived. Those comments morphed into a group chat, which led to a Google spreadsheet to collect the information and stories of everyone who said they had been scammed. Years later, her original photo still garners waves of comments from people all over the world.

"There seemed to be so many of us that I think we figured at some point someone's gonna give a shit," Sheei said in an interview. "It was mostly to take it to the police, and be able to file a report; to have some kind of proof that there was more than one person being scammed by him."

Through the sherbet-colored skies and desolate desert landscapes he photographs, all shot while driving cross-country, Shorosky has crafted the image of a loner, a Steinbeckian thinker who sees beauty in everyday Americana. Raised in southern New Jersey, Shorosky began traveling the country in an 18-wheeler working as a long-haul trucker shortly after graduating from New York's School of Visual Arts in 2013 at 24. Now in his 30s, he documents his travels and the life of a trucker on Instagram, shooting photos of the people and places he finds along the way, and taking on big clients like Tesla in between. In 2015, he wrote in a piece commissioned by VICE that reads, in part: "[L]ife as a long-haul truck driver in the Midwest was the answer to my existential crisis. My interest in learning how to drive an 18-wheeler and living an anonymous and temporal life came from a father who had been driving trucks for nearly 25 years. I wanted to escape what I had known and uncover something new." 

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Shorosky's sense of romance and eye for intimate details didn't go unnoticed by other publications either. His work started to catch eyes in 2016 after a feature with contemporary art publisher Aint-Bad, a Photographer of the Week shout out by New York art book publisher Capricious, and a takeover of The New Yorker's Instagram account. Eventually, his work appeared in the New York Times, Time, Vogue, W magazine, and others. He amassed a following as a photographer for the Instagram generation, creating the kind of images that are catnip to millennial and Gen Z art lovers. 

At some point, Sheei was invited to an Instagram group chat named simply “Ryan Shorosky Scam Group”; a second spillover chat called “Ryan Shorosky Scam Group 2” was created after her post set off fervent commenting and DMing with others who’d lost money. There, those who had been allegedly ripped off shared their experiences and planned how they could hold Shorosky accountable. When the names in the chat kept growing, and the stories poured in, photographer Julia Haas, who lost $130 to Shorosky, created the spreadsheet to keep a record. 

VICE has also received dozens of DMs and emails from people who all had nearly the same exact experience with Shorosky: they reached out either via DM or email to purchase a print after seeing one of his publicized sales. He’d respond immediately. Buyers either sent a payment (most in the $120 range) directly to him or someone named David Nieves. Nieves, as Shorosky noted in an DM exchange with one buyer, is a good friend of his. Multiple people said they were told to send money to Nieves rather than to Shorosky directly because of issues with Shorosky’s PayPal account.

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Communication was generally swift at first. In a few cases, buyers were asked to send additional payment for shipping costs, which all obliged to even though shipping was said to be included in at least one of the sales. Shorosky seemed to prefer Zelle, QuikPay, or CashApp, but would take PayPal if there was no other option, and also often asked to have funds sent via the friends or family option.

“He was really reluctant for me to pay through [PayPal] but eventually caved,” explained Meghan Brown, who started one of the group chats. “He said, ‘if you're gonna pay through PayPal then use this email address,’ which was [David Nieves’s email address]. I thought nothing of it. I thought, okay, maybe he goes by an artist name and this is his real name.”

Some were asked by Shorosky to mark the item as received so that funds could be released right away; he needed the money immediately so he could print and ship as soon as possible, he'd say. Per PayPal’s guidelines, holds on payments are placed in case an issue should arise with an order and to mitigate any possible risks for both buyers and sellers. By asking buyers to mark the item as received, Shorosky ensured he’d get the funds released from PayPal's hold immediately into his or Nieves’ account.

“When he asked me to mark it as ‘confirmed receipt,’ I immediately felt suspicious and I told him that,” said Haas, who shared her email chain with Shorosky with VICE. “I actually thought to myself, ‘is this a scam?’”

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After sending payment, the buyers waited, and waited, and waited. When days, weeks, or months passed, buyers reached out asking for an ETA. Shorosky would eventually respond saying that he was extremely overwhelmed, and in a bad place in his personal life. Buyers waited longer, and grew increasingly frustrated, then angry. They demanded refunds. Their messages went ignored, sometimes with a read receipt denoting that someone had seen it. In some cases, Shorosky responded asking for compassion and patience. Prints still hadn't arrived but he was working on it, he promised. In some instances, someone purporting to be his mother would respond saying Shorosky was having a hard time at the moment, and she would be working to refund people. Some tracked down both Shorosky’s parents out of desperation. At some point, communications would cease, despite piles of messages with read receipts. Shorosky also removed negative comments or questions about orders that haven’t arrived from any Instagram posts, and those who have posted about him in a negative way say he asked them to remove their post.

VICE spoke with Nieves, who has known Shorosky since high school. He confirmed that Shorosky had asked him to accept payments for him via Nieves’ Paypal. “Me being his friend, it sounded weird, but I was just like, alright if I can help my friend get paid for his print sale then I’m happy to help,” said Nieves. “I had no idea that this was something that was going on.”

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At some point, Nieves says he began to receive emails from people asking for their prints, a refund, or to get in touch with Shorosky. When he reached out to Shorosky about the emails, Shorosky explained he was “in over his head.” According to Nieves, PayPal then began to refund those that paid Shorosky, leaving Nieves with negative $1,700 in his personal account. “I’ve contacted Ryan several times in order to get repaid for that, because now my account is completely wrecked,” said Nieves. “It’s in collections. I can’t use PayPal.”

Nieves said that when he last reached out to Shorosky in March 2020 to ask for his money, Shorosky became “offended,” accused him of blackmail, and threatened to share information about Nieves with VICE to damage Nieves’ character. 

“I just don’t want any more problems with this thing,” Nieves said. “I’ve had enough. I didn't want to have Ryan get in trouble. He would always say that he’s trying to make it right, I always believed him. If he was owning up to it and fixing it, then he would pay me back for what he owes me.”

I first started looking into the allegations against Shorosky at the end of 2019; sometime last year, he blocked me on Instagram. In November 2020, he was featured on Huck Magazine’s Instagram page, and soon after, he resumed holding sales, which resulted in a fresh wave of people claiming they’d been scammed.

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Some of Shorosky’s customers eventually received a print on poor quality paper; some have never seen any prints or a refund at all. Others were lucky to get a refund by submitting claims to PayPal. That was much easier to accomplish if they didn’t originally send him money under the friend or family member option, as he would request they do. Those who used Zelle instead were not so fortunate; because funds are sent directly to a seller's bank account when a purchase is made through the platform, a payment cannot be canceled. Venmo also doesn’t guarantee refunds should an issue arise during a sale, but they claim to “work with you to help you come to a solution” with the seller, as stated in their policy, which has also opened up this platform to scams.

The flaws in these payment systems, plus the illusion of closeness that Instagram has enabled between followers and those followed, has created a hole easily fallen into. “When someone has so many followers, we believe they’re credible and accountable because they're so public and visible. And that’s just not actually a way to measure it,” said Haas.

Some place partial blame on Instagram. While the platform offers a regulated Marketplace where vendors can sell their goods, it's still common for many creatives to sell more directly. 

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Corentin works in the auto industry in Paris. He purchased prints from Shorosky in 2020 after his boyfriend, photographer Simoné shared Shorosky's work with him. (Both asked that their surnames be omitted to maintain privacy within their fields.)

“I really think there is something not working here on Instagram,” said Corentin. He thinks the platform could simplify the reporting process, or add disclaimers to any private messages in which someone asks for payment to warn people of potential dangers and encourage them to use the Marketplace section of the platform for safer transactions.

Whether it’s a celebrity, a creative, or your cousin out in California, the illusion that is crafted to suggest a life of excitement and success doesn’t always match the reality behind the screen.

A spokesperson for Facebook, which acquired Instagram in 2012, explained that the platform has “layers of reviews in place to protect our community from fraud and low quality commerce,” and that products and services sold on Instagram must comply with their Commerce Policies and Community Guidelines. “We use a variety of signals to detect fraudulent business including user interactions, comments and manual review,” they said. Some of the tools available for users are reporting an account, ad, or post if it’s “misleading,” and an account information section on each business page that offers info on sellers as well as all ads the business is running. But these safeguards are for people selling through the Marketplace; Instagram doesn’t offer the same level of protection for people selling through their personal page.

On the flip side, Simoné, who sells prints directly on Instagram, worries that too many regulations on the app would affect artists like him who are running an honest business. “It’s not the fault of Instagram,” he said. “It’s the fault of Ryan. A lot of photographers, lots of artists, make a living through Instagram.”

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I spoke to five other photographers to understand the ins and outs of holding online sales, and what issues may arise along the way. They all agree that mistakes happen, even if one is impeccably detail-oriented. However, they each explained the ways in which they reconfigured their sales to avoid damaging their relationships with their customers. 

For Shorosky’s fans, a sense of resentment has grown over time, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In a moment when many have donated and purchased goods to support local artists, charities, restaurants, and other small businesses, Shorosky found more people that not only loved his work but felt extra compelled to buy from him.

“I have been trying to do more direct action,” said Betsy Wack, a Pittsburgh-based writer who purchased prints from Shorosky in November of 2020. “So I have been supporting people directly by buying their work.”

Orchestrating a whole scheme for such a relatively small amount of money seems odd to the point of implausibility, especially considering the effects that getting branded a scammer could have on one's image and business opportunities. But also, why would anyone willingly create such chaos for themselves over a few thousand dollars, when just selling a low-cost print would be much less stressful?

In January 2021, Corentin and Simoné corresponded with about 15 people who found themselves possibly scammed, and formed a group of five in France to coordinate against Shorosky with the aim of getting refunds and accountability from him. Simoné asked friends who are major Instagram influencers in France to message Shororsky and apply pressure, and he reached out to friends connected to higher-ups at Instagram in Europe for help as well. Together, the group individually messaged Shorosky every hour, every day, for two weeks until they all received their money.

Other alleged victims tried various tactics too. Several people contacted editors at various publications to warn them against promoting Shorosky. In June 2018, Sheei and another member of the so-called Ryan Shorosky Scam Group went to the LAPD to file a fraud report, where they were told they had to file individually in small claims court because it was a person-to-person transaction. According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, the fee for filing in small claims court in California is $30 if the claim is for $1,500 or less. The cost of individually going to small claims over a $120 refund or so, “would have cost me more than what I had lost on the photograph,” said one buyer. Baritaux also reported Shorosky to Instagram, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Internet Crime Complaint Center of the FBI, but never got a response from any of those entities. 

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Wack also filed a complaint with the FBI’s online crimes unit. (VICE reached out to the FTC and got no response; calls to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center went unanswered.) She sent Shorosky a message: “It was just like, ‘we are reporting you. What you’re doing is wire fraud.’” He refunded her shortly after. “He was just like, ‘I hope you know that none of this was bad-intentioned,’” she said. “‘I just was in over my head.’” 

"Why pocket all the money and risk ruining his name and career?” wondered Baritaux. “Obviously there’s a customer base for his work, who would continue to purchase his work if he actually sent what he sold, so why scam everyone? Makes absolutely no sense.” 

The only person to ask was Shorosky himself. 

When I first spoke to Shorosky by phone in February 2020, he was in New Mexico taking a break from driving across America. He talked about the harsh realities faced by long-haul truckers—long hours and low pay in a dangerous job where there's little security—and how their work, while invisible, is the backbone that provides Americans with so many of their basic needs. Shorosky seemed to be painting himself as a man out on the roads, struggling to get by, and now grappling with making things right with all those he’s wronged.

“I wouldn’t say I lost myself, but I guess I’d say I lost my priorities,“ he said. “I didn’t keep my priorities straight and then I was just lazy. I just allowed one thing to get on top of another until all of a sudden, one or two or three minor issues all of a sudden became this giant mountain of an issue, and then it just expounded from there.”

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As Shorosky explained, he didn’t properly calculate the cost of shipping, he was completely disorganized in handling a sale, and using Instagram to sell “completely backfired” as it became impossible to keep up with. He initially held the print sale to make some quick, much-needed cash, but was overwhelmed by orders, he explained. He struggled to fulfill them while on the road, and couldn’t afford to hire an assistant to handle printing, packaging, and shipping. Nieves was simply a trusted childhood friend doing him a favor by taking in payments. Suddenly he was in a hole, and that hole got bigger and bigger until he had no grasp of any of it.

VICE reviewed dozens of screenshots of all communications between several buyers and Shorosky. Many of them showed an understanding of his predicament, and then over the course of months of hearing apologies and explanations that felt more like excuses, the tone of the messages certainly became angrier. I explained this to Shorosky.

“Put yourself in my shoes. You’re panicked and put in a corner because you don’t know what to do because you’re broke and can’t pay off [people], or send money back or get these prints out, and the messages are piling up. It’s a tough spot to be in,” he explained. “I’m not saying I handled it perfectly. I definitely made mistakes and I do my best to let every person know that I’m sorry for that. It’s tough to be in a place where you’re trying to straighten yourself out and learn and grow from these moves and not just make the same mistakes. 

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And people still want to see you go down. I think that’s the hardest thing for me because I am a very sensitive person and I’m not some asshole who's just out there looking to take advantage of people.”

Yet he continued to hold sales. When I asked why, Shorosky admitted he needed to sell more prints to float himself for a bit longer, get some prints out, and try to catch up on back orders. 

He said he felt like some of his customers’ rage is unfair and shows a lack of compassion and failure to understand what he was dealing with on his end. 

“It makes no sense for somebody to be angry. It doesn’t make sense to me for somebody to assume because, at least for me personally, I do my very best to not assume things about other people, especially because of how misinterpreted things can be on the internet,” he said.

It's hard to know the context of someone’s struggles when the public persona they share seems to be living comfortably. In a post from February 1, 2019, featuring the cab of a metallic truck boasting the reflection of the cloud-filled sky, he wrote: "True growth comes from breaking down all the bullshit and re-growing with the lessons and experience of trial and error. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve lied, I’ve done shitty things, I’ve made choices that didn’t represent the best version of me, and for all of that I’m grateful. I don’t use that pride as an excuse but rather a remembrance of the easy way out, the shortcuts, the path of less suffering. And how at the end of the day intuition and that gut feeling always prevails. Get out there, go for it, make mistakes, suffer, feel the pain, embrace it, and grow from it all.”

The Influencer Next Door

The very nature of Instagram allows fans of people of any fame level to feel closer to them—the allure of their lives, however unattainable or even mundane, becomes a point of fascination. While that has its complexities, the intimacy of the platform has also empowered creatives to grow their brand, share their art, and sell directly to consumers. It creates a sense of trust, warranted or not. Whether it’s a celebrity, a creative, or your cousin out in California, the illusion that is crafted to suggest a life of excitement and success doesn’t always match the reality behind the screen.

In my conversation with Shorosky, he talked about the entire incident being a sign from the universe that photography is no longer his creative calling, and part of the process to his growth.

Even so, there’s still people out there missing the money they gave him or the prints. Shorosky assured me that he’s been working slowly to pay off everyone he owes, sending refunds to someone each week since the beginning of the year. He provided six screenshots of refunds he’s made, and said he now has someone based in Los Angeles who offered to help him out with getting prints sent to buyers. Ultimately, it’s hard to say if what Shorosky is doing is actually a scam, or a pattern of extremely poor judgment and maturity. He could just be disorganized, juggling far more than he can handle, and, in the process, creating a lot of bad blood. But for those who lost money, the reality of what they haven’t received has ruined the illusion of what they were promised.

During our conversation in 2020, Shorosky promised to pay back or send prints to every person he’d wronged. The life he was leading may not have matched the life he was posting, but, Shorosky promised, he was traveling the long road to get there someday. A few people who purchased in November 2020 were able to get refunds as well, after a long, contentious process.

As of sometime in February, Shorosky’s Instagram page was shut down. “Trust and safety on Instagram is very important to us and we have disabled the account in question,” a Facebook company spokesperson told VICE via email. (His page was back up a few weeks later; a spokesperson has yet to respond to a request as to why it was re-enabled.) He is active on TikTok as well, and is still driving a big wheeler around the country. “It’s deeply frustrating that he remained unscathed for nearly three years since my initial interaction, and that despite numerous efforts from many individuals to boot him from Instagram and diminish his credibility, he continued to gain visibility via a large platform that enabled his lies and theft,” said Sheei, who years into this battle has not let up on holding Shorosky accountable. She doesn’t believe he’ll change, but seeing his removal from Instagram, albeit temporary, felt like a “small victory.” 

Others still have some compassion. “I think he should answer for his actions, and he should be responsible for what he does,” said Corentin. “But, in the same way, we don’t want to push him over the cliff if he’s really struggling." After their initial correspondence, Shorosky later emailed Corentin to send him prints, not realizing he had already refunded him. Corentin declined them. 

I reached out to Shorosky again in March 2021, and we corresponded up until May. Ultimately, he didn’t want to speak on the phone again, and did not respond to a list of emailed questions. He did offer this, however: “As you can imagine I'm also not immune to the effects of COVID and unfortunately I did a complete shit job on managing my time professionally that put me way behind and led to having to send refunds to anyone who asked. I completely understand other’s frustration because of that. Fortunately a lot of people have also been understanding so I’ve spent the past few weeks printing and getting remaining orders out as well as communicating daily with anyone who has reached out about a refund, receiving prints, or any other questions or concerns relating to things.”

On May 18, Shorosky posted another print sale. A few days later, he was featured on the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Instagram page, showcasing his work to their huge following. The Shorosky Scam Group chat was livid, and they were concerned that there’d be a whole new crop of people purchasing prints that would inevitably go through the same frustrating ordeal they had. I got a handful of panicked messages flagging his sale, hoping this story would come out soon. For his part, Shorosky’s world online appears to remain the same: the skies are pink-tinted as ever and the roads are desolate and beautiful. Only the comments allude to the trouble behind the screen.

Follow Alex Zaragoza on Twitter.