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Confessions of a stock photo star

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but Caleb Heidel, a 23 year old UMBC graduate and graphic designer, estimates that a photo of himself that has circulated online new sources for the better part of a year has been associated with many more.

Doing a reverse Google image search of the picture results upwards of 5,000 hits, some for stock photo sites and others for articles using the photo. Titles such as “Dealing with Weight Loss and Drug Addiction,” “8 Reasons to Date a Highly Sensitive Man” and “How You’re Ruining Your Self-Esteem and Don’t Even Know It” are just a few of the results that show up in a slew of articles.

It was less than a year ago that Heidel agreed to help his friend Blair Connolly, a 23 year old graduate of UMBC and professional photographer, with a photography project. It was an amateur photoshoot like any other, complete with heavily-saturated backgrounds and expressionless glances at the camera. Less than one month later, Heidel noticed an odd trend surfacing on the internet.

Heidel recounts the first time he noticed his photo used on an internet article: “Somebody posted a link to my Facebook and asked, ‘Is this you?’ So I followed the link and it led to some girly, Christian site, the kind where you get advice about God and, you know, what types of boys you should date. And I was the one to avoid!” The image was definitely of Heidel, but this raised more questions than it answered. Within a few hours, Heidel received a few more messages, all containing different articles with his photo used.

The ordeal, to Heidel, was hilarious. “If you go to a stock photo site, it will say something like, ‘Young man, plaid shirt, in the woods.’ And that’s how I describe myself in ten words or less!” Heidel laughs, adjusting the collar of his blue plaid shirt as he leans back in his chair and stretches out his long legs. “Maybe these articles know me better than I thought.”

He cites his favorite article as being one called “11 Countries with the Hottest Guys in the World” because “it’s flattering and it’s hilarious. Like, I’m number eight and I’m also Canada.” He pauses before shaking his head and adding, “It’s all totally messed up.”

The experience holds more than just humor for Heidel. He admits that there is something uncomfortable about being used as the face of an article and says that he views the models of such photos in a different light – perhaps they, too, are college students helping a friend out with a photography assignment or maybe they’re just someone who uploaded a nice photo to Flickr, unaware of the policy on sharing photos.

The photo itself is mostly unremarkable: a lush green forest surrounds a young man clad in a plaid button-up shirt over a navy blue T-shirt. His eyes are downcast (Heidel later admits that he was standing in the river outside of Old Ellicott City and was trying not to trip over anything) and his expression seems to be purposefully vague. The subject of the photo is tall and thin, clean-shaven and well-groomed – or, in Heidel’s own words, “hipster and whatever.”

Perhaps it is this vague sensitivity that draws people to the photograph, or perhaps, as Heidel asserts, it is something more technical: “For a blog or a news article, you need a photo that is pretty wide to act as a banner for the top of the page and this photo is very wide with me sort of off-center, which creates a nice composition for the header of a page.”

Whatever it may be – technical or aesthetic – the photo is clearly appealing to the editors of blogs and the stock photo compilers of the world. “Who knows,” Heidel coolly swipes the screen of his phone to check the time before saying, “Maybe I have a future in modeling for obscure blogs.”