Millions of eyes around the world have seen it. Anyone suckered into a ‘listicle’ with a headline like ’17 images you will never believe are Photoshopped!’ are guaranteed to have also seen it. Same applies to those who use any form of social media. And if by chance you were in Newcastle, around seven years ago to the day, it is quite likely you’d have seen it!
But who took that classic photo of the Pasha Bulker grounded on a beach in Newcastle back in 2007? Newcastle professional photographer Murray McKean did, and considering it has visited every populated continent in the world, he hasn’t received anywhere near the money or even exposure he potentially could, and definitely should, have.
‘Once it’s off the leash, you can’t bring it back,’ Murray told Pro Counter.
Here is a little background to the photograph: This time seven years ago the Pasha Bulker, a 74,000 tonne deadweight carrier ship, was swaying gently off Nobbys Beach, waiting to be loaded with coal. A major storm hit the area on June 8, 2007, dragging the ship inland, grounding it metres from the shoreline.
It took three attempts to salvage the ship, spanning just under a month and attracting worldwide media attention. Subsequently, hundreds of images were captured of this bizarre scene.
But Murray, with a commercial photographer’s mind, thought outside the box. He woke up early the morning after the grounding and climbed the narrow, lengthy stairway to the top of the Christ Church Cathedral – the highest point in town – armed with a Nikon D2X and 300mm prime lens.
He was met with an unreal angle that contrasted the giant ship towering over the seemingly tiny beach side town. While perched up in the cathedral taking photos, Murray wouldn’t have been able to grasp just how many people would see the view that was right in front of him.
‘It was done with such innocence and with no intent to make money, and yet look where it has gone,’ Murray said. ‘All I did was send it to a couple of friends, one in Perth in particular. He obviously then sent it to someone else and it just went nuts.’
Within a day the photos had done a full circle. Murray opened an e-mail from someone totally unrelated to the original recipients and saw his image was attached – the sender had no idea he was sending the image back to its rightful owner!
Then the unlicensed commercial use started. Murray has recorded people from outside Australia putting their own watermarks on it, entering it in competitions, car dealerships have used it, it has been printed on T-shirts, and that is only what he is aware of. One experience that left a bad taste in his moth, Murray recalled, was with a wine company.
A company that specialises in personalised wine labels began flogging ‘Pasha Bulker Stormy Port’ with the photo printed on the label for $25 a bottle. For every bottle sold, $5 was donated to a local charity. Murray had no problem with the donation to the charity. What he does have a problem with is being lied to. ‘When I first spoke to them, they assured me they’d only made five dozen bottles,’ Murray said. With this in mind, he only asked for $500 and a few bottles of the port.
‘Three or four months later, it became so popular that they presented a cheque for about $15,000 to the charity, which means they made a bucket load out of it,’ he said. To make things worse, the people Murray spoke with initially claimed that he was, in fact, the liar, and claimed they knew the individual who took the photo.
‘I have successfully attained financial gain from them doing it. When I research copyright litigation cases, it’s a drop in the water compared to what I could have got – which frustrates me,’ Murray said. ‘They acknowledge me now on their website… But who’s going to buy the port for what’s in it anyway?’
The debacle with the port company happened within months of the photo being captured, and it is still being sold to this day – seven years on. The world was quite a different place back then. The internet has grown exponentially, along with the content sharing culture. To no surprise, Murray’s photo ticks all the boxes for widespread social media share-ability, meaning the image is officially ‘viral’.
Having only joined Facebook last year, Murray had no idea how much the image would haunt him. Within days of signing up he saw his image, trailed by people claiming it was either a fake or two images Photoshopped together. After responding to a few of the comments to clear things up, the gravity of the situation set in. There was hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’ and 18,000 comments, most of which Murray says questioned the image’s validity. Two weeks later the image cropped up on his newsfeed again, this time from a different Facebook page with thousands of ‘likes’ and comments. Repeat this again, and again, and again.
‘I can’t quantify how many times it has been seen, but if you do the maths it would be millions. Absolutely millions,’ Murray said.
When asked if anyone had approached him to license the images lawfully, he responded ‘a couple have’. But it was mostly small publications, such as the front page of the Pasha Bulker Investigative report, and newspapers. The occasional print is sold here and there, but that is about it.
In hindsight, Murray is in no way bitter about the whole ordeal. He is aware that had he watermarked the original copy, things would have panned out a lot differently. And every now and again he does receive kudos!
‘It has been wonderful exposure. The advertising I got for that – I mean it was almost a three quarter page article in the Newcastle Herald. That advertising is worth quite a few thousand dollars, I’m sure,’ he said. ‘Look, It’s a good story. It’s a true story, and no one got hurt. It is just a warning to other people out there that just a little slip up like that and there it goes.’
Murray still lives in Newcastle, shooting as a commercial photographer for clients like the Newcastle University, and teaches photography part time at TAFE. Here is some of his photography that ISN’T the Pasha Bulker. Click here to visit Murray’s website.