Mirko Vitali was relaxing with friends on Giglio Island, just off the coast of Italy, when he learned about his unintended role in a major story in the United States.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had used the Italy-based photographer’s “handshake against racism” image — that’s what Vitali called the photo, part of a shoot six years ago in his home country — for a hotly anticipated public apology on his Instagram account, which has 1.7 million followers. Brees faced criticism from teammates and fans for telling Yahoo Finance on June 3 that he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” a comment that was perceived as misguided after the death of George Floyd and with regard to NFL players’ efforts to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
Brees’ apology was not universally praised, seen by some as generic amid a movement built on authenticity. It wasn’t until Brees fought back against President Donald Trump that most believed he finally got the point.
But the photo became a reference point in a controversial moment. By the time NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace used a similar image on the front of his car to support Black Lives Matter just days later, Brees’ post was on its way to more than 330,000 likes and nearly 90,000 comments.
Vitali doesn’t watch the NFL, or stock car racing. He doesn’t know about Colin Kaepernick, why the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback knelt during the national anthem in 2016, and why it could happen again after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league apologized for not understanding players’ protests earlier.
And Vitali had no idea who Brees was — until Adobe Stock contacted him nearly a week after Brees’ post to emphasize the photo’s impact.
“My mind is still on the ‘wow’ effect about one of my images getting so popular,” Vitali told ESPN via email. “Having images all over the web is part of my job. At the same time, I was honored that one of my images was used for such an important message about human rights.”
All this came from Vitali gathering eight models together on a sunny day at Rimini Beach, Italy, in 2014 for a lifestyle shoot “representing friends spending time together,” he said. The Black and white men shaking hands also took pictures with fingers interlocked and in a few other poses.
For the now-famous shot, Vitali clasped his hands together, demonstrating how he wanted the models to capture the look. The models faced each other, locked hands and got the right picture in seconds, with Vitali snapping a few shots with sharpness and focus under a blue sky, he recalled. They quickly moved on to the next picture.
That’s how it works when taking a series of “stock” photos that accommodate any setting or background for people or companies to license. The models are considered generic, their names kept private. Attempts to identify the models were unsuccessful, and Vitali said he can’t release their names.
With what he called “open-minded” models cultivating a happy atmosphere, Vitali had modest goals that day.
“I knew that, if my images were good enough, they could have landed on blog articles, social networks, commercial ads and magazines,” Vitali said.
Mission accomplished. The close-up handshake image alone has accounted for more than 2,000 licenses and downloads, Vitali said, and he gets royalty payouts for each one sold.
Vitali is a nonexclusive contributor who helps organize the shoots, takes the photos and uploads them for different companies — Adobe, iStock, Dreamstime and Shutterstock among them — to distribute. He pays for his own expenses.
The amounts paid in royalties hinge on how much customers pay for a particular image. That formula is too complicated to estimate exactly how much Vitali made off this image, he said. But prices for the handshake have ranged from $12 on iStock to $79.99 on Adobe Stock. So if Vitale gets, say, half that total for each of his 2,000-plus downloads, the range averages out to $12,000 to $80,000 for a picture he shot six years ago. The photo has been licensed hundreds of times on Adobe Stock, the company confirmed.
In many cases, companies utilize a purchased photo for any purpose they wish. An example of how stock photography works: One of the handshake models also took a picture giving a woman a piggyback ride on the beach, and that same image was used in a romance novel — “It Had To Be You” by Lizzy Charles — with a grass courtyard in the background.
In Brees’ case, one of his reps, Chris Stuart with Encore Sports and Entertainment, said he believes the former Super Bowl MVP found and/or purchased the image on his own. Efforts to reach Brees were unsuccessful.
Wallace’s team did not purchase the image, but a rep for Richard Petty Motorsports said graphic designer Bradley Sisson searched images of hands together and drew on the hood of the car out of inspiration. The words “Compassion, Love, Understanding” accompany the image.
Wallace’s car — and his stance inside a sport once considered among the least progressive — became a national story.
“The Black fist and the white fist going hand-in-hand speaks volumes — a lot of power behind it,” Wallace said in a video interview with Sisson that Richard Petty Motorsports sent to ESPN.
The image on the hood looks almost identical to Vitali’s. Sometimes photographers pursue copyright claims if a third party’s use of an image is an obvious pull. It’s up to the artist, not the stock photo companies, to make those claims. Vitali says that’s not his style, preferring to “trust the system” and focus on positive art.
Over the years, Vitali said he has seen his photos licensed or downloaded 500,000-plus times, with high scores of up to 10,000 for individuals.
But this one is unique — and he’s grateful for the impact.
“I travel the world a lot, love and respect cultures from any part of our globe, so I’m even more happy that my image was used in favor of human rights by movements against racism,” Vitali said.