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Stolen Glory: Trolls Doctor Vermont Photog's Shot of Veteran


Published October 18, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 31, 2017 at 4:06 p.m.

The original picture of Earl Granville (left) and the altered version (right). - COURTESY OF MONICA DONOVAN
  • courtesy of Monica Donovan
  • The original picture of Earl Granville (left) and the altered version (right).

In June 2016, Burlington photographer Monica Donovan was hired to take photos of a Spartan Race, one of those epic outdoor endurance contests for the maniacally fit. This one was held in Pittsfield, the birthplace of the Spartan events. And it was a special kind of race: The Agoge is a 60-hour marathon endurance test, supposedly modeled after the training methods of the original Spartan fighting force. (Pronounced a-GO-ghee, both hard Gs.)

One of the participants was Earl Granville of Scranton, Pa., who's a member of Operation Enduring Warrior, a five-man team of wounded military veterans. He lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan and competes on a "running blade" — a high-performance limb used by amputee runners.

Just after Granville's team completed the race, Donovan took his picture as he stood proudly in the Vermont sunshine, wearing a black Agoge T-shirt. Donovan recalls being impressed by Granville and his fellows. "The guys looked really good for having gone through two and a half days of grueling physical punishment," she says. "I didn't have to do much. They just stood there looking awesome."

The photo was later published in Outside magazine. Recently, it was noticed by a right-wing internet troll. Inspired by the controversy over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, the troll altered the T-shirt, removing the Agoge emblem and inserting a black-and-white American flag with the legend "I Don't Kneel."

It's an affecting image. The enduring soldier bearing the wounds of war, refusing to kneel on his artificial leg.

And it was completely fake. Granville never wore that shirt. In fact, it didn't even exist when his picture was taken.

It does now, though, and it's for sale all over the internet. So Granville is trying to reclaim his image — and Donovan, control of her creative work.

"I've had copyright violations before," Donovan says. "But this is the first time I've been offended by a use. My photo is being used to divide people." She plans to consult with her lawyers this week to ponder next steps.

"They're using my image for propaganda," said Granville, speaking from Scranton. "Not just propaganda, but to sell merchandise!" It's especially impactful for Granville, who's now a public speaker raising awareness of the mental adversity that many veterans live through — inspired in part by his own experience, but more so by the death of his twin brother, who committed suicide while serving in the military.

"Politics is not involved in what I do," he says. "My purpose in life is to help people."

Ironic, isn't it? Internet profiteers are claiming to honor American veterans by stealing and manipulating the image of a vet.

On second thought, it's not ironic. It's just sick.

This story is excerpted from this week's Fair Game column.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Not Every Picture Tells a Story"