Australian portrait photographer, Helen Whittle, is distressed that her image of her daughter has been appropriated by an Italian street artist to paint a pro-Russian mural on a blown up building in Mariupol, Ukraine.
The Italian artist, Ciro Cerullo, AKA Jorit, painted the giant mural over a week ago. The portrait shows a young girl with braids wearing a turtleneck sweater, with Jorit’s signature red streaks painted on her cheeks.
Jorit often paints politically-charged murals and is a vocal supporter of the pro-Russian Donbas separatists, who inhabit a region in East Ukraine, parts of which are currently occupied by Russia. His social media is rife with posts campaigning against the Ukrainian war movement in favour of what he describes as a ‘Russian-speaking minority’.
Here’s a sample:
‘Surely now many more people know the tragedies that the Children of Donbass have suffered. This Russian-speaking minority massacred by bombs in Kiev for eight years. No one would ever tell you about it, I had a moral duty to do it. I am sure that excluding the right-wing extremists and those paid directly by NATO, (those are irrecoverable) all the people who wanted to follow me in this experience, now have a broader and less ideological view of the war in Ukraine.’
The Italian initially said he painted ‘a living little girl [Nastya] from Donbas who spent her first years in Mariupol surrounded by war’. Although social media users noted the uncanny resemblance to Whittle’s image, a 2018 Capture Magazine cover image, which it turned out Jorit appropriated.
Jorit admitted to finding Whittle’s image after searching for ‘pigtails’ on Google. He created the mural by appropriating ‘the composition and elements of this Australian girl […] And so what?’
The reason for doing this is because ‘Nastya unfortunately isn’t very photogenic and has a high forehead’, so he borrowed the braids and shirt from Whittle’s image to fix the young girl’s apparent unsightly features.
‘I could also paint a Crocodile with a Donbas flag between his claws, the meaning remains the same, it is not the work of himself but what he wants to communicate that is important and what Nastya’s face communicates is the suffering of the Donbas children who have grown up For 8 years under the bombs of Kiev and in fear of Nazi battalions.’
While Jorit didn’t re-produce a carbon copy of Whittle’s image, there are enough similarities to upset the Australian photographer.
‘It was distressing and painful for me to see my image copied and used in this way,’ Whittle told Italian online news outlet, Fanpage. ‘Jorit did not ask my permission to reproduce the image or compensate me in any way. I have not given any permission for the reproduction and I am seeking advice from my lawyers on what to do.’
She adds that ‘my ideas and opinions are in no way in line with those of this artist’.
‘It seems that you find inspiration by copying images found on the internet,’ Whittle wrote about Jorit. ‘I am sad and angry that an artist feels the need to copy someone else’s work without asking permission. And I am very saddened by the way my image, my daughter’s portrait, has been used.’
It’s not the first time that images of Australians have been co-opted to push a pro-Russian message in the Ukraine war. Last year a 2013 photo of Australian SAS troops was used to promote the Russian paramilitary organisation, Wagner Group.