Appearing in Stock Photos Was the Biggest Mistake of My Life
My face sold booze and milk, I graced the cover of a book about monster hunters, and I was the poster boy for a horrifying penis condition.
This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
I was in a bad relationship last year. A very bad relationship. The type that makes you want to plan a bank heist, rat out your co-conspirators, discreetly enter witness protection, and never see anyone from your former life again. So when a photographer friend of mine suggested taking some photos of me, I thought that might be a nice distraction. He specializes in stock photos—so not exactly glamour shots, but beggars can't be choosers.
I arrived at his studio an hour late, absolutely shattered, after an entire night of arguing with my then-girlfriend. But as my friend started snapping, my mind cleared and I began to enjoy myself.
"Will anyone actually buy these photos?" I asked him as he changed the lens on his camera. "Well, you'll find out soon enough," he said.
When we were done I signed a form stating that the pictures belonged to my friend and that he could sell them. That, I now know, was the biggest mistake of my life.
A few months later I was alerted to the fact that my face was gracing an article on the website Those Catholic Men. The site's tagline is "By Catholic Men. For Catholic Men," and according to the About page, it's "an online resource for Catholic men amidst the confusion of our post-Christian, secular age." The article using a picture of my face was about "protestants and terrorists," and has since been taken down.
That in itself wasn't so bad, but it was then that I realized I had no control over what might happen to my face. Anyone with an internet connection and a bit of cash could buy the images and do whatever they wanted with them: They could make me a cigarette salesman; the face of a nationwide campaign to maim all horses; the lead image in an article about premature ejaculation. Worse still, because I'd signed away the photos I wasn't getting paid for any of it.
Soon enough my face was gracing advertisements for gluten-free options from the horchata brand Costa, and encouraging people to drink shots of some random Colombian liquor. By this point my toxic relationship had come to end, so I didn't even have anyone to complain to.
In Saudi Arabia, Germany, Venezuela, and the Netherlands my face was used to promote the most bizarre things—often something embarrassing or disgusting. My face, photographed on a day I just wanted to feel a bit better about myself, was actively making me feel worse on a daily basis.
Someone said he'd seen me on a huge billboard on Puerta de Sol in Madrid, which is one of the busiest places in the city, but that he hadn't been able to take a picture. Another friend told me he'd seen someone who looked a lot like me on a billboard outside a hardware shop. A friend in Tokyo saw me on a recycling bin, pointing an accusing finger at anyone who doesn't recycle.
My face wasn't just used to sell stuff or make a point, but also to illustrate things. Like an article on "How to Mindfully Deal with Jerks," (I'm the jerk—not the person mindfully dealing with them) one on "The Vindictive Ex: When Hate Comes Before Children," (guess who I'm supposed to be) and one on cat-callers. I'm guessing there are millions of men's faces available in stock photo databases, but the editors behind these articles chose mine out of the lineup, meaning I must look like the most vindictive, jerky cat-caller, of them all. This, understandably, was not great for my self-esteem.
There's also this airbrushed version of me used on a YouTube clip with a song. I have no idea what the song is about, but considering it only has around 860 views, I'm not too bothered.
The same night I found out about the song, a friend sent me a link to a self-published novel by Scott Burtness called Northwoods Wolfman. It's the second book in the Monsters in the Midwest series, and it's apparently about a monster hunter called Dallas. The Kindle version is only $3.05. My face is on the cover, but there's some added value here in the fact that I have pointy ears and a ripped shirt.
Then there's a Czech advertisement for a shaving products brand that used a grand total of four different photos of me and my mustache. I've decided to take this one as a compliment: I clearly have very appealing facial hair to Czech men. Still, none of that makes up for the worst one so far.
As I was getting up one morning, a friend from Venezuela asked me on Whatsapp if I had—or had ever had—paraphimosis, a very serious penis issue. I told my friend that I might have had some issues down there in the past, but that I don't remember it being called that.
"Why?" I asked her.
"Nico," she said, "you're the poster boy for paraphimosis in Venezuela."
There it was: On January 8, 2017, Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional tweeted out my face to its 4.11 million followers, along with an article about paraphimosis—a medical condition where the foreskin of the penis gets stuck behind the glans, so when a penis is flaccid the foreskin can't go back to its normal position, and cover the glans. This becomes highly painful if it gets stuck there, as well as potentially dangerous: a lack of blood flow could lead to gangrene and your dick needing to be chopped off.
It's a rare condition, but it's pretty scary when it happens. So scary, in fact, that the picture El Nacional chose to illustrate the article was the one of me pulling my "EEK!" face.
This had gotten way out of hand. As humans we can all be self-indulgent—it's one of the pleasures of being alive. Only, my relatively minor moment of self-indulgence had turned out to have some pretty severe consequences.
Not long after learning I was the face of paraphimosis in Venezuela I got a voicemail from my friend Sam, who lives in Sydney.
Please, I thought. No more weird dick stuff.
I was in luck: Sam told me that Australian internet provider Exetel had chosen me as the face of its advertising campaign. I was on billboards plastered in airports and inside buses and metro stops all over Australia. I was trying to convince 24 million Australians to get their internet from Exetel. When I looked the company up it didn't even seem all that evil—according to its Wikipedia page it spent a third of its profits in 2009 on programs protecting endangered animal species. I can't find any confirmation that it's still doing it, but it's something, right?
Although it was nice to know that my face was now being used to sell an Exetel National Broadband Network plan with unlimited data from $40 per month, instead of just illustrating articles about how to deal with jerks, it didn't change all that much for me.
I know I can't really complain—I was fully conscious when I had those pictures taken and I actively signed away the rights to my face. Many people never consent to their images being used and are the subject of nasty memes shared around the world nonetheless. Still, that doesn't mean I don't rue the day I posed for those pictures. Briefly feeling a little better about myself that day does not compare to the fact I have no idea where my face will show up next.