Brittany Wright started taking photographs of food in late 2012. It began as a hobby she pursued while toiling away at a day job repairing computers.
Photography was a natural outgrowth of Wright's obsessions; she'd always been fascinated by food. Raised in San Diego by her Southern grandparents, she grew up on a steady diet of Cajun food that piqued the curiosity of her schoolmates, who had never seen gumbo, okra, and grits, let alone tried them.
“That let me know already that there was some food out there that I probably hadn’t even heard of yet,” she says. “And that’s still the case.”
When she picked up her camera in 2012, she started seeing things that she’d never noticed in food before: new textures, colors, and shapes in everyday ingredients.
“My art is my way of getting my imagination and what’s going on in my brain just out and creating it,” Wright tells me over the phone. “I’m thankful that the camera can capture that and make it permanent.”
She’s now managed to construct a career around her photography, making the leap to becoming a full-time photographer at the end of 2014. Since them, she's also amassed a sizable following of nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram.
But for the better part of her career, Wright has faced repeated theft of her work from companies and brands across the world. She first became aware of this problem in late 2013, when a reverse Google Image search of a few of her pictures yielded a number of hits that didn't have her name. Countless times since, she’s found her photographs posted without attribution or consent, turned into memes or Pinterest-friendly photographs with inspirational bromides on them.
People tend to credit her about half the time, she claims. When they don't, though, it results in a scenario she likens to the conceit of Pay It Forward: “One person will post my photographs and then three more people will post it and three more after that. And then, it’ll spread like wildfire.”
In September, Wright signed up for an account on Pixsy, a service that allows creatives to track image theft. She had over 18,000 links surface. "I felt overwhelmed and claustrophobic," she remembers, her voice thinning. "I sank into my chair."
Seeing her photographs float online without her permission has dampened her spirit and put a sizable dent in her workflow, rerouting her attention from her art and affecting her day-to-day mood in a way she’s found difficult to explain to others. The situation has gotten so untenable that she’s enlisted the help of a lawyer.
Wright works out of her San Diego apartment, which doubles as a studio. I spoke to her in October, a month before the release of a small book of her photography, Feast Your Eyes, which was released last week and is filled with photographs of chive blossoms, cactus pears, and salmonberries arranged in careful rows. She sees it as an attempt to reclaim what she feels has been taken from her.
“Daily, hourly, it doesn’t end,” she tells me of her images being stolen. “I get sent links constantly or people commenting under images letting me know someone has again posted my art without my consent. Hundreds of my images are all over the place without any bit of my name connected to it. The bananas, toast, and some of my citrus photos get it the worst.”
The photos in question appear as if they’ve been reverse-engineered to go viral. You’ve likely seen them: produce lined up in color gradients; bananas arranged like the spokes of a wheel; 16 slices of toast that range from being pallid to the color of ash—all of which have ricocheted across the internet.
In early October, her photograph of toast had been reposted, without credit, by the popular Facebook page Money Saving Mom. Each slice had been covered with numbers, attached to a meme asking what level of doneness people preferred their toast. Wright was furious that the page’s owners hadn’t contacted her and asked her permission. Money Saving Mom did not respond to request for comment from MUNCHIES, nor did most of the other companies and organizations who Wright had told me stole her photographs.
One of the few respondents was the Real Junk Food Project Leicester, a volunteer-run non-profit organization in the United Kingdom that had taken more than ten of her images and used them for promotional materials both on- and offline. Bobby Hawkins, who heads the project, initially explained that Wright had never contacted him about the use of her images. A few days later, Hawkins followed up by saying the images had been taken from a number of stock image sites, though she tried to find the images on those websites again and failed to, implying that they’d been removed.
“Due to the fact that the copyright owner has not been in touch with us, we will continue to use them for now until we complete a new design,” Hawkins writes me. “We will of course remove them immediately if a legitimate claim against them being used is made directly to us. We are a charitable, non-profit organization and are driven by good intentions as such we would never try to profit from the work of others.” (Wright confirmed that she hadn't in been in touch with the Real Junk Food Project Leicester.)
Celebrity wedding planner and fashion designer David Tutera’s team was another source who used Wright’s photographs of citrus as a backdrop for a jewelry advertisement. When reached for comment, a representative of the company, Rona Menashe, wrote me saying that the team became aware of the theft through a claim of violation through Facebook and Instagram notices. The team removed it immediately, followed by issuing an apology to Wright, which she corroborates. (Menashe told me that Tutera became a fan of Wright’s photography as a result of the incident.)
Still, Wright’s travails edify an increasing problem for food photographers working online. The terrain of the internet enables copyright infringement and essentially allows for impunity, leaving little in the way of support for artists like Wright who unwittingly forfeit control over their creative output.
“The Copyright Act incentivizes the creation of art because it’s generally understood that we’re better as a culture if we have more creative voices,” Scott Burroughs, partner at the Venice-based law firm Doniger/Burroughs, tells me. “What that means is that if you see artwork and you want to monetize it, you have to reach out to the artist and get their consent and provide compensation if they desire it. So to the extent that there are websites out there that are publishing Ms. Wright’s material without her permission, they’re violating her rights under the Copyright Act.”
To Burroughs, the issue has become more widespread with food photographers, threatening their livelihoods more increasingly in recent years. “Food photography is so popular—there are so many food blogs and other sites that post photographs of food—that we’ve been approached with a large number of those cases,” he tells me. “In the case of Ms. Wright, her work is so aesthetically compelling and striking that if you see that image, it’ll appeal to a lot of people.”
This is the precise reason why Wright had chosen to have the book’s cover an image of citrus flesh arranged in an ombre pattern. It’s one of the images that’s stolen most frequently from her. “I want someone to see it and be like, Oh, I’ve seen that picture on the internet!” she says. “I’m just trying to reconnect it back to me.”
She still hopes people will know she took the photograph when they see it—that, at the very least, they’ll know her name.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on December 6, 2017.