By Meagan Kunert:
I’ve always embraced my artistic side, and from the moment I first picked up a camera, I was hooked. I started a full time professional photography business in April 2011, and I guess that’s where my story begins.
I was eager to get started, and at first, things were great. I was busy and booking clients, all according to plan. Then, things slowed down. Clients stopped calling. Facebook posts went unanswered. I started researching marketing techniques, and found several photographers who had gone from shooting for free, to booking 30+ weddings a year and making over $100,000 a year – in less than two years. I was amazed at their skills and wondered how I, too, could obtain that kind of success.
This is where the story takes a horrible turn for the worst. I wanted to create a buzz for myself, and appear to potential clients and peers like I was high in demand. I wanted to build an appearance of exclusivity to my brand.
So I did the very worst thing that I could possibly do as a photographer.
I took images that weren’t mine. I slapped my watermark on them, posted them on my website, and passed them off as my own work.
It wasn’t just an image here and there, either. I took complete shoots and blog posts from other photographers. I even stole a blog post about starting a photography business. The saddest part is that the blog post gave advice like “operate with integrity” and “respect your fellow photographer,” which I obviously was not doing by stealing others’ hard work.
I felt like the scum of the earth. But still I continued.
I posted the stolen work on my blog among my real work. No one knew or even questioned it. I was booking more clients based on my active blog posts and Facebook updates. The “busy, exclusive photographer” marketing technique was working. I had always planned to take down the stolen work once I had things off the ground.
It was never my intention to go this route – the way of the criminal. But still I continued.
On May 9th, 2012, the bottom fell out of my world. I woke up to 100+ emails in my inbox, several missed calls and voicemails, and about 100 text messages. With a quick glance at my phone, I knew I had been caught.
Photographers wrote blog posts about me. Other people left comments and spread the word. Newspapers and news stations documented what happened. I received tons of backlash from people all over the world telling me what a horrible person I was. I received anonymous emails telling me that I should kill myself. Phone calls, voice mails, blog comments …
I reached out to the photographers I stole from and offered an apology over the phone. I apologized profusely. I realized then the effect I had on the photographers and their clients and peers. It was never my intention to cause so much grief.
I posted a public apology on my Facebook page, but after 900 mostly-negative comments, I could not keep up anymore. Comments disrespecting my religion and faith had turned into a huge debate, and other people were attacking my skills as a mother. I ended up removing the page altogether.
I specifically remember one comment from an individual who said something like:
“It’s a shame that it’s not like the olden days where you could be stoned for crimes like this.”
You don’t forget stuff like that. I’m terrified of rebuilding my online presence. I feel like if I make a comment under my real name and someone happens to recognize it, the Internet mob will re-appear and I will re-live what happened back on May 9th.
Still, for every 100 negative comments, there seems to be one positive comment … one individual full of grace, reaching out their hand to help me up. Those individuals remind me that there is hope.
My career as a photographer is over forever, and my online image is ruined. My family and I have found ourselves in a huge financial mess, and it’s been hard to re-enter the workforce as employers are Googling names. The only thing I can do now is take responsibility for what I did and move on.
I think the thing that hurts me the most is that I attached the word “Christian” to myself and my business. I called myself a Christian, yet I lied, stole, and deceived many people. I called myself a Christian, but I was anything but Christ-like. I failed.
And in this life, I will continue to fail. I will need third chances, and fourth chances, and 77th chances. But I believe in a brighter future because I have to. What else is there? I can’t let my mistakes dictate who I am for the rest of my life.
So today, I declare that I am People of the Second Chance. I’m reaching out for grace, and believing that it will be there.
[UPDATE, via POTSC Admin: 500 comments! Thank you all for such a spirited, challenging, and varied discussion. There are obviously many viewpoints, and we value them all. We're going to close up the comments at this point, but know that we appreciate you all. Take the discussion with you, and remember that grace always wins!]