A 2013 photo showing two Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan has been stolen and co-opted for Russian military recruitment ‘propaganda’.
The photo was captured by former US military photographer, Gagan Dhiman, who was embedded with the Australian photographers and shows them standing in front of a US Army Black Hawk Helicopter.
Dhiman described the cinematic image as ‘bad ass’ to News.com.au, and it was taken as a memento at the request of the Australians.
‘It was a way to capture two heroes,’ he said. ‘It was a small token – something that I could do. Because they were the ones doing all the hard work.’
Dhiman didn’t file the photo for usage, although he published it to Instagram in 2014, and the image is technically in the public domain as he working as an official US military photographer. The picture began circulating on Russian military forums in 2017, and now appears in billboards and posters to promote a Russian paramilitary organisation, Wagner Group.
‘When I was posting these pictures I was very intentional about not showing any faces,’ said Dhiman, who now works as a destination wedding photographer. ‘So I’m really glad I stuck with my gut to not post anything where it was showing or revealing their identity at all. I would never in 100 years just hand over an image this iconic to a group like that.’
The Wagner Group has been described by western media as a private mercenary group with close ties to the Kremlin – ‘Putin’s private army’. It’s led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is wanted by the FBI for allegedly attempting to interfere the US election by funding the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The poster adds a sepia tone and vignetting with text that translates to ‘Homeland. Honour. Courage.’
Dhiman describes the illegal usage as ‘really mind-boggling’ and ‘surreal’.
‘It was just really strange to see my photograph on a billboard in Russia. It was very frustrating for many reasons. One, it’s my intellectual property that is being abused. And so yeah, it’s really strange,’ he said. ‘I think what upsets me the most is to see how the image is being used. And me knowing how amazing these two soldiers are. That upsets me more than the fact that it’s being used the way it’s being used.’
The posters have been plastered around Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city 100 kilometres from the Ukraine border.
‘I just find it ironic they’re using the Australian SAS and a US Army Black Hawk [helicopter] in a photograph taken by a US Army soldier,’ Mr Dhiman said. ‘To recruit to fight opposed to these guys — it just makes no sense, that’s the irony.’