It’s not every day that your family photo appears on a 15-foot storefront sign in the Brazilian Amazon. But for at least the last year, a larger-than-life version of the Massachusetts-Maryland-New York Kugels has stared down at passers-by on Sebastião Diniz Avenue in Boa Vista, the low-slung capital of Roraima, Brazil’s least populous state. The business, Credirápido Solicitações de Empréstimos, makes personal loans so the people of Roraima can buy cars or homes or take their kids to Disney World.
I had no idea it existed until December, when a friend from São Paulo — where I had lived for a few years — spotted my face from the car. She snapped a picture and emailed it to me.
Needless to say, I was flabbergasted. I paused to make sure I was awake, and looked again. Yep, still us — my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law and my nephews posing in front of a mountain I didn’t recognize.
It may sound creepy, but we don’t take our privacy too seriously in the Kugel family. My father is a regular character in my mother’s very personal blog. If my brother, Jeremy, had his way he’d be a game show host. My picture appears 24 hours a day on the online Travel section of The Times, and both nephews have starred in my articles.
We easily figured out which photo the sign came from: the 2011 version of the annual Kugel family Thanksgiving Day picture, taken near my parents’ home in Cambridge, Mass. But the background had been Photoshopped, an American football cropped out and the image flipped horizontally.
How had this happened? Could it possibly be legal? Were we on just one sign or on all Credirápido’s ads? And in a Brazilian state where a census report lists 73.6 percent of the population as nonwhite (and where 0.0 percent of the population wear winter coats), why us?
I began to investigate. Credirápido, it turns out, is an Amazon-region enterprise that is part of the booming credit business in Brazil. Its specialty, payroll loans, now makes up more than half of all personal credit in Brazil.
I called the number on the sign and spoke to a man named Francinei. He would look into who had produced the ad; I should call back in few days.
Then I had a revelation. Until 2012, I wrote a travel column for a Brazilian website, IG, and had used that very photo for an article about what to do if you visit the United States during Thanksgiving. I pulled out my old contract: It permitted IG to “commercialize” my photos. But I wrote to them, and they said they had never sold the rights.
By the time I called Credirápido back, a manager, Cristiane Souza, had figured things out. The sign — there was only one — had been commissioned from a local company, Eduart Comunicação Visual. It had gone out of business, but she gave me the phone numbers of two former employees. Neither remembered the sign, but both were frank about where the company got images: from Google searches.
How illegal was this? I called Ronaldo Lemos, who runs the Institute for Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s 100 percent illegal,” he said. Brazil had joined the World Trade Organization in 1995 and overhauled its copyright laws in 1998. But it’s not that simple, Mr. Lemos said: There are two coexisting spheres in Brazil, the official and unofficial. He used the example of favelas, shantytowns where residents historically have no title to the land, state presence is minimal and “laws” are created and enforced within the community. “The same thing applies to intellectual property,” he said.
“It reminds me of the old days,” said Vitor Knijnik, a friend who started working in the Brazilian advertising sector in the late 1980s. “We used photos right out of foreign magazines, because the probability of anyone catching us was small.” These days, he said, big firms go by the book.
Which just leaves the question, why us? I asked Maria Helena Machado, a social historian at the University of São Paulo. “You’re obviously white, and dressed in winter clothes,” she said, “which in Roraima would be absolutely impossible. That captures the imagination of Brazilians from the region about what successful capitalism is about: white people, successful, with an age hierarchy and a sense of order.”
I hope that soon, even in Roraima, advertisers choose images of success that look a lot more Brazilian — and do it legally. Well, with one exception.
During our conversation, Ms. Souza of Credirápido had asked if I wanted the sign taken down. What, and end our 15 feet of fame?
“I want the opposite,” I told her. “Leave it up there forever.”
Seth Kugel writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times.