Photojournalist launches online campaign against Ed Gillespie over stolen image

Attack ad inaccurately claimed photo, used without permission, was of MS-13 gang members.

A screenshot from Ed Gillespie's ad.
A screenshot from Ed Gillespie's ad.

Spanish photojournalist Pau Coll Sanchez launched a social media campaign on Monday targeting Republican candidate for Virginia governor, Ed Gillespie. Coll is demanding that Gillespie to stop using his work without permission and to pay him what he’s owed.

Gillespie’s campaign appropriated one of Coll’s photographs in a political attack ad about the MS-13 gang, ThinkProgress reported last month.  

Coll and his photo agency, RUIDO Photo in Spain, told ThinkProgress that after contacting Gillespie’s campaign and being ignored, they decided to launch a public campaign demanding that Gillespie stop using the photograph in the ad, which has been broadcast aggressively on television commercials since it first aired.

In the ad, which began airing in mid-September, a narrator warns Virginia residents of the menacing threat of the MS-13 gang while Coll’s photograph, stamped with the words “Kill, Rape, Control,” flashes across the screen. Gillespie’s commercial tries to pin the increase in MS-13 violence on his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and criticizes the democrat for his vote against a Virginia bill that would have banned sanctuary cities, which do not actually exist in Virginia.


But the gang members in Coll’s photograph are not actually MS-13 gang members, nor were they photographed in Virginia. The photograph features Barrio 18 gang members that Coll photographed inside a prison in El Salvador. In fact, Barrio 18, a faction of the Sureños gang, is a rival of the MS-13 gang.  

“It’s disgusting that they would use my photos to criminalize migration, naturally without asking permission,” wrote Coll in Spanish on Twitter.

“It’s very irresponsible to use images and journalistic work outside of their context for a political purpose,” Coll said in a direct message to ThinkProgress. “That photograph is from an article about the poor living conditions in the prisons in El Salvador.”  


RUIDO Photo’s communications manager Clara Roig told ThinkProgress in an email that neither Coll, nor the photo agency provided the Gillespie campaign with the authorization to use the photograph.

 “We do not authorize the use of the photo, and more importantly, not for this purpose and message that goes against our work and beliefs,” wrote Roig.

Last month, the online digital news site El Faro, which is headquartered in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador and originally published Coll’s photograph, also confirmed to ThinkProgress that they did not grant Gillespie’s campaign permission to use the photo.

Last week, the Gillespie campaign began airing a new MS-13 ad featuring generic photographs of gang members. ThinkProgress reached out to the Gillespie campaign asking for comment, but did not receive a response.   


However, last month Gillespie’s spokesman David Abrams told ThinkProgress via email that the campaign believes their use of the photograph is “‘fair use’ under U.S. law.”

MS-13 is short for Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly translates to Salvadoran gang. The Salvadoran immigrant gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, but many of its members were deported by immigration authorities in the subsequent decades, which in turn led to a surge in violence in El Salvador.   

In an analysis fact-checking Gillespie’s ad (along with a Northam ad), the Washington Post knocked the commercial for exaggerating and manipulating the truth in “deeply misleading ways.”

“The link Gillespie and the president create between Northam’s vote, sanctuary cities and increases in crime is a scare tactic and, frankly, fearmongering,” wrote the Washington Post.