Photographer behind viral ‘Fatima’ ballerina photo says she is ‘devastated’ by government advert

16 October 2020, 13:12 | Updated: 16 October 2020, 13:55

Who is 'Fatima'? Photographer reveals young dancer's identity
Who is 'Fatima'? Photographer reveals young dancer's identity. Picture: Unsplash

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The US photographer behind the viral ballerina photo in a government-backed ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’ advert says she is “devastated” by how her image was used.

A government-backed advert, which implied a ballet dancer named ‘Fatima’ should retrain in cyber security, has been removed following intense backlash online.

Many believed the messaging, fronted by government programme CyberFirst, was insensitive and appeared to diminish young people’s dreams of being in the arts.

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has now twice distanced himself from the campaign, calling it “crass” and saying he wants to preserve at-risk jobs in the arts.

Fatima, to many people’s relief, is no longer being encouraged to give up on her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer to work in ‘cyber’.

But now, there’s a whole other issue coming up. Fatima’s name is actually Desire’e Kelley, and she’s a young aspiring dancer from Atlanta, US.

Her photo was taken by US photographer, Krys Alex, who has since spoken out in a YouTube video. “I was shocked,” Alex says. “I woke up Monday morning to a bunch of emails and tags, and I really felt devastated.

Read more: Government scraps controversial ad that suggested ballet dancers ‘rethink’ >

“I immediately thought about Desire’e and how her face was just plastered all over social media and the internet, different news articles, and memes were created, and she had no clue. All of that really hurt me.

“Some people questioned if I knew and if I approved the use of my work. If I’d have known this was going to be used in the way it was, I would have never agreed to it.”

How did the ballet dancer photo come to be used in ‘Fatima’ campaign?

Alex’s photo, which originally included Desire’e’s instructor and dance studio owner, Tasha Williams, was available to the public on stock photography website, Unsplash.

According to Unsplash’s terms of licence, anyone is free to download, copy and modify photos from the website, including for commercial purposes, “without permission from the photographer”.

However, a caveat on the page says the licence does not include the right to use “people’s images if they are recognisable in the photos”, adding the user may, in this case, need permission from the author on how they use the photo.

Alex has since removed the image and adds in the video: “We’re exploring all our options and we’re talking and consulting with different professionals to figure out the best way to protect our rights in this situation.”

Alex's full photo of Desire’e and dance instructor Tasha Williams
Alex's full photo of Desire’e and dance instructor Tasha Williams. Picture: Unsplash

Why did the UK government's Fatima cyber campaign spark backlash?

The timing of the advert was particularly unfortunate. Not only is the culture sector navigating an extremely difficult period due to the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, but also, tensions were already rife following numerous pleas to the government to support freelance artists, many of whom have been out of work since March.

This, among an interview in which chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared to suggest musicians should retrain, plus the fallout over so-called “viable and non-viable jobs”, led to a big moment of frustration among arts workers and just those missing live performance.

“I understand the controversy going on with this photo,” Alex says. “I can relate as an independent artist in the creative community. It’s not easy to find work.”

Artists “should not be encouraged to stop doing what we love”, she added.

Alex’s image was just one of a number of stills used in an advert for CyberFirst, a government programme encouraging young people to retrain in cyber security. Alongside ‘Fatima’ sat images of a construction worker, a coffee barista and a retail assistant.

When asked about the advert again by MPs on Wednesday, the culture secretary said: “I was at the Royal Ballet just on Friday and it was wonderful to see artists perform again. I know the huge value they bring to this country.”

A 10 Downing Street spokesperson added the campaign image was “not appropriate”.