My photo smiling back at me

So I’m flipping through The Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, (36th edition: Dec 2010 to Mar 2011), and exactly halfway through the magazine, there’s an ad for MekongBank. Half the ad is an image of one of the many smiling faces from the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, portraying Buddha or Jayavarman VIIor both.

Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, 36th edition, open to MekongBank ad on page 76
Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, 36th edition, open to page 76

Something about the photo in the ad caught my eye. Almost immediately I realized, “That’s my photo”. Not “I took a photo like that” or “I happened to take a photo of that same face”. No, “I took that very photograph”—during my second trip to Cambodia in May 2003. It happens to be one of the few photos of my own that I’ve had printed. It was hanging in our foyer in San Francisco.

I’ll admit I wasn’t 100% sure. It’s hard to fathom how many photos have been taken of the Bayon temple’s smiling faces over the years. I was willing to allow that there was a chance, however slim, that someone had taken a remarkably similar photo.

Later that day, I looked back at my photos from May 2003, compared the ad to the original, and sure enough it was my photo exactly: uncropped, same perspective, same shadows, same sliver of blue sky in the top left corner. A dead match. The shear improbability of it blew me away. Here I was, in Siem Reap, stumbling upon a photo in an ad in a free tourist guide that I had taken during my first visit nearly 8 years ago. Does this sort of thing happen to anyone else?

Close up of a smiling Buddha and/or Jayavarman VII face in the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom
My original photo of a smiling face at Bayon, taken in May 2003

How did it happen? After that trip to Cambodia, I put some of my best photos online, including this one, to share with friends and family. I made the original versions of the photos available for download since they were only 2 megapixel files. I also dedicated my initial photo galleries to the public domain, which helped some of them find their way into Wikipedia and which may have been where this photo was found. Or maybe it was just a swipe from Google Images, without regard for my permissive uncopyright. Who knows?

To make a long story short, we took the guide with us on our return trip to the Bayon and actually managed to find the very same smiling face I’d photographed in 2003. Even that seemed unlikely, given the roughly 150 surviving faces, each a little different. Only a few were visible at eye-level, which made the search easier. As a souvenir, I posed next to it with the magazine.


Justin posing with a smiling face in the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom with the magazine showing the same face from 2003
A smiling Bayon face and the ad that features its likeness


That is so weird! What are the odds of that? This kind of thing happens to you a lot. What astounds me is that you somehow always find out about it.

The odds are staggering, but what really bakes my noodle is the simple fact that my brain managed to recognize one photo I’ve taken (out of thousands) as I was just casually flipping through the guide.

Reminds me of the last time this happened: Stephanie is famous on the YouTubes.

Justin, I have a special area of my brain reserved for the (good) pictures I take, so I quickly remember a photo if I see the place it was taken. Meaning, that I’m not surprised you recognised your photo, especially if it was one you really liked.

It’s still cool and unusual you actually found it, though :-)

David R.

Very Cool Justin! I continue to read your ’round the world blog with interest and I’m glad that your face is holding up much better than the one behind you! It’s amazing what you and Stephanie have accomplished and seen on this trip. Regards, Cousin David.

P.S. I saw that your little sis’ kicked butt in the marathon!

David Brauchli

Justin, you have been robbed. You need to be compensated for your photography, people can’t just download your photos and use them in publications. Especially Amex. Approach them with your evidence and demand a reasonable payment ($1000) and if they don’t pay you, sue them. It’s copyright infringement and it’s NOT cool.

Classic Justinsomnia.

Miserere, I’m not surprised—it’s happened before—but I am definitely in awe of what the brain manages to accomplish at that subconscious, split-section level.

David R, glad you’re still following along. Tell the whole R-clan in your neck of the woods that we say hi.

David Brauchli, thanks for the support, but in this case, I pretty clearly released those photos into the Public Domain for anyone to use. In cases where that was not the case, such as a photo that Sony Music France used without permission, I did exactly as you said—and prevailed. Nowadays I put much lower resolution photos on my blog (max 800px) and license my content with a Creative Commons By-Attribution license. In any event, I’ve emailed both Canby Publications and MekongBank (no website I could find…somewhat disconcerting), but I’ve yet to receive a response.

Ivan, thx!

Wow, amazing odds! I would’ve been a little miffed that no one contacted me, even if it was creative commons licensed, but then I’m a bit of a jerk. I like to know where my stuff is going! :)

I love it when that happens. Sometimes you have no recollection of the day, but you always know that it belongs to you. I don’t mind people taking my photos. I feel appreciated and as if somehow that particular photo meant something to them. Pictures are really easy to nab on the Internet. Thats why copy right infringement don’t really phase me. But if I’m doing a shoot for you, then duh give me money. Though the worst part is when people decide to take your pictures, edits it, and marks it as their own. That’s when you feel like fighting somebody.

R. Cash, Jr.

Millions of pictures later, I can look at a picture that I took and know that it is my work. Instantly. My brain snaps the picture the same time my Canon does. A little credit for the capture would go a long way. I agree with David B., you have been robbed.

Nik, have you played with much?

ACN, agreed, thankfully, not many people are that dastardly. But when it does happen, it sure is nice to have a public, Google-indexable soapbox (like a blog) on which to call them out.

R. Cash Jr: considering what Cambodia has been through, I’ll consider it retroactive pro bono.

James Traverse

Hi Justin… I would like to use your image of the Smiling Buddha in an ebook I’m writing.

I will give you a photo credit in the endnotes at the end of the chapter where it appears… the subject matter of the book is a way of seeing… and it relates to how a photographer sees – hence the inclusion of your image.

James, sounds neat. Please feel free. And let me know when the ebook is out.

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