Last week, men’s lifestyle magazine GQ published this photo of Silicon Valley executives including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston from their pilgrimage to a small village in Italy to visit Brunello Cucinelli, a luxury designer famous for his $1,000 sweatpants.
But if you think something looks a little off in this photo, you’re right: A BuzzFeed News “investigation” reveals that two women CEOs, Lynn Jurich and Ruzwana Bashir, were photoshopped into what was originally a photo featuring 15 men.
The doctored photo, posted on Cucinelli’s own Instagram account on May 30, served as the lead image for GQ’s June 4 story about the “Solomeo Summit,” a visit of luminaries from “perhaps the most swagless realm in the land” to Italy’s finest cashmere craftsman. “In many ways, Brunello is an entrepreneur right out of Silicon Valley,” Nextdoor cofounder Nirav Tolia, the organizer of the trip, told GQ. “There [were] people in the group who do not wear Cucinelli, they don’t care about the clothes. But they can absolutely appreciate Brunello’s track record as an entrepreneur.”
His track record as an Instagrammer is a little more suspect.
On Monday, I read the GQ story about the tech trip to Cucinelli’s village in Solomeo, Italy, and found the picture to be a bit suspicious. Take a look at the two women in the photograph.
At first glance, the woman in the back row, identified by GQ as SunRun CEO Lynn Jurich, has a slightly pixelated face. Her lighting and coloring appear different from the rest of the photograph’s subjects, and her head isn’t quite in line with what is supposedly her leg and foot. In a second, more candid Instagram post from Cucinelli, Jurich was nowhere to be found.
The appearance of a second woman on the far left of the group photograph, identified by GQ as Peek CEO Ruzwana Bashir, also seemed suspect. In the picture, she makes no contact with the other participants, while the lighting on her upper body and legs differs from the lighting patterns in the rest of the photo. It appeared to have been manipulated.
But why would anyone do something so absurd? In my mind, I thought that an all-male photograph might not be the best optics for a bunch of rich tech entrepreneurs, especially during a time when women and minorities are underrepresented in the industry. But why would someone doctor a photograph for such a low-stakes item for Instagram and a lifestyle magazine? Was the photo truly manipulated to appear more diverse? Or was this simply a case of “Please photoshop my friend into this family picture. They took it.”
When I presented my research to my colleagues via Slack, my efforts were met with derision. “I appreciate your dedication to the truth on this one,” one individual quipped. “I think I am becoming a GQ photo truther,” said another.
Perplexed, I looked to Twitter for help. On Tuesday, a user named @z3dster messaged me to say that he had run the photo from the GQ article through a free metadata analysis tool. Pictures taken by electronic devices often carry Exchangeable File Image Format (EXIF) data, which can include everything from the type of camera that took it, to the photo’s exposure and GPS coordinates. (In 2012, authorities found former software entrepreneur John McAfee, then a fugitive in Belize, after a Vice journalist posted a photo that included location EXIF data.)
While photo metadata can be manipulated, the EXIF analysis showed that the GQ photo — which had also been shared to Cucinelli’s Instagram account — had been altered in a 2019 version of Adobe Photoshop. This wasn’t a smoking gun — lots of photos are edited and polished in Photoshop before they’re posted or printed — but it did at least suggest that some of the elements in the photograph had been professionally altered.
When I reached out to Bashir, Jurich, and GQ’s public relations team to inquire about the photo's authenticity, Bashir didn’t respond and GQ’s spokesperson said they would get back to me. Meanwhile, Jurich confirmed her attendance at the gathering and said nothing about the photograph itself.
The breakthrough came on Wednesday morning. Twitter user @benjymous ran the GQ photo through Google’s reverse image search, which returned a similar, but not exactly identical photo, of 15 men — without Bashir or Jurich.
I replicated @benjymous’s steps, and traced that photo back to the LinkedIn account of Ferdinando de Bellis, a Milan-based partner at Barabino & Partners, an Italian communications firm that’s done work for Cucinelli. Two weeks ago, de Bellis posted the all-male picture and the more candid group shot to his LinkedIn, celebrating the visionaries who had come to visit Solomeo, including former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who appears in none of the photos, doctored or otherwise. I emailed these new findings to GQ and sent questions to a Cucinelli spokesperson.
A little more than four hours after the original Twitter discovery, a Cucinelli representative sent me a statement explaining what had happened.
“When we realized we didn't have a shot where all attendees were represented, we added in photos of two female CEOs taken during the weekend,” a spokesperson wrote to BuzzFeed News. “The photos were shared and approved with all the participants including the two women, Lynn Jurich and Ruzwana Bashir, before posting them on Instagram and they also shared the group photo on their own Instagram handles.”
“We meant no harm or had any malicious intent in doing this and we are sorry,” they added, declining to answer if the brand commonly doctored press or product photos. Cucinelli’s Instagram bio reads, “The eternal Values of Beauty, Humanity and Truth are the Ideal and the Guide to all our actions.”
Asked why Bezos wasn’t added to the photo along with Jurich and Bashir, the spokesperson said that the Amazon CEO declined to be included.
The photo has now been removed from GQ’s story, which has been updated with this addendum: “An image provided by a Brunello Cucinelli representative that did not meet GQ’s editorial standards was removed from this story.”
GQ provided an additional statement to BuzzFeed News, noting that “the image had been altered and GQ was not made aware.”
The Twittersphere was less than ready to forgive. For some, the photograph, more a cheapfake than a deepfake, was the perfect encapsulation of the tech industry, where issues around diversity are just an image problem that can be solved with a quick fix. “Photoshop the change you want to see in the world,” one Twitter user wrote.
The most fitting commentary, however, may have been in the photograph itself. Behind the executives there’s a sign with a quote supposedly attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: “IO FARÒ UN’INVENZIONE, CHE SIGNIFICHERÀ GRANDI COSE.”
Its rough translation? “I will make an invention, which will mean great things.”
Vice posted a photo of John McAfee to its website. An earlier version of this story stated Vice had posted the photo to Facebook.