News

The Mystery of the American Flag Sunset Viral Photo

We followed a pathway into the past to find the origins of a patriotic picture that had gone uncredited for around a decade.

Published Jun 3, 2021

Updated Sep 7, 2022
 (Facebook)
Image Via Facebook

On May 30, 2021, Facebook user Karen Brunner shared a picture of a sunset with colors and clouds that somewhat resembled an American flag. It read: "The most patriotic sunset I've ever seen."

The American flag sunset photo said it was the most patriotic sunset I've ever seen.

The post did not contain a photographer's name or any other source.

Finding the Photographer

In order to find the origins of this picture, we first turned to Google. A reverse image search wasn't much help since the picture on Facebook contained added words. (The point of a reverse image search is to send Google a photo on images.google.com, by clicking the camera icon, thus allowing Google to scan for pictures that look the same. The process works better on a desktop computer than a mobile device.)

While a reverse image search didn't work, a web search did. We looked up the words "American flag sunset" (without quotes) which turned up quick results.

We initially found two links to buy the picture as artwork on the websites Fine Art America and Pixels.

The artwork was credited to someone named Jas Stem, who later turned out to also be named Johnny Stem. Both pages said: "American Flag Sunset is a mixed media by Jas Stem which was uploaded on October 10th, 2019."

At first, this appeared to perhaps solve the mystery. Unfortunately, we soon learned that he was not the creator of the American flag sunset photograph.

BuzzFeed

It became clear that Stem might not be the photographer after we found a Pinterest link that led to a BuzzFeed article. It was published on July 29, 2012. "Unbelievable Night Sky Photo Looks Like An American Flag," the headline read.

While BuzzFeed's embed for the picture was no longer working, we verified that the BuzzFeed story was about the same picture that Brunner posted on Facebook.

At the bottom of the article, it credited Twitter user @ChicagoPhotoSho for the American flag sunset picture. We decided to reach out.

Jeff Lewis

On the Twitter feed for @ChicagoPhotoSho, it identified the user as Jeff Lewis. Lewis manages chicagophotoshop.com and, as implied in his bio, is a photographer in Chicago, Illinois.

On July 30, 2012, the British tabloid Daily Mail published that the picture was captured "by Chicago photographer Jeff Lewis." (In 2017, Daily Mail was deemed so "unreliable" by Wikipedia that the website prohibited its usage as a reference.)

Once again, the mystery appeared to be solved.

We reached out to Lewis to learn more about his purported involvement with the American flag sunset photograph.

"I did not take that photo," he told us in a Twitter DM. "I saw that on Reddit and tweeted it. No clue who owns it."

So, we turned to Reddit.

Reddit

After Lewis told us he saw the picture on Reddit, we found what appeared to be the original post on July 16, 2012. We were unable to find any information about the photograph's origins in the post.

We also found a second Reddit post that promoted the picture. The Reddit thread was created on July 29, 2012, the same day that the photograph showed up on BuzzFeed.

The Imgur link where the photograph was hosted for the second Reddit post appeared to finally lead us to the source of the picture. However, two other people would soon claim credit for the photo as well.

Elizabeth Cordes Rose

In a comment from ElizabethNDP on the Imgur link, it read: "This is my original, copyrighted photograph. Posted on Instagram on 9/11/11. ElizabethNDP on FB: www.facebook.com/ElizabethNDP." The original "Patriotic Sunset" photograph was posted around the same time.

The picture could also be found on Rose's Flickr page. However, it was originally posted to Facebook and Instagram on Sept. 10, 2011:

On Flickr, she mentioned that it was shot in Edmond, Oklahoma, and that the saturation of the picture had been increased for richer colors:

Stars & Stripes Sunset

Way-back Wednesday: Originally shot this image with my iPhone on September 10, 2011, the Eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I was amazed at how much the sky looked like the American flag. It made me think that perhaps God was feeling patriotic that evening.

Edited with Snapseed, I increased Saturation to enhance the color of the "flag clouds". I posted this in square form on my Instagram & Facebook accounts & learned the hard way about people stealing images & not giving credit. The image went viral on Facebook and on Reddit...all without any acknowledgment of the source.

...Anyway... Hope you all have a wonderful Independence Day! I received my D5200 back from Nikon Service & am looking forward to capturing some fireworks!

In 2021, we reached out to her to ask about the picture. She told us it was captured on an iPhone. "I noticed the clouds made the sky seem to have red and white stripes. When I reviewed my shots, I was amazed to find how much the image resembled the American flag."

While my image has not brought me fame or fortune, it does still make smile when I see it making the rounds again on the patriotic holidays. At first, I was frustrated at not being credited-or worse, when other’s claimed as their own without bothering to remove my watermark. I quickly found my efforts to find and gain credit to be futile. Over time, I was able to appreciate that people enjoyed the image irrespective of their knowledge of who actually captured it.

...

I'm not a professional photographer-merely a hobbyist-who happened to get a lucky capture. Despite requests, I have not licensed my image to anyone for use.

Two Others Claim Credit

More than a year after this story was published, we received emails from two other people who claimed credit for taking the photograph of the American flag sunset.

The first email came from a reader named Kaitlin Mowles in July 2022:

About the American flag sunset. I’m the original photographer of it I have the original. This one was edited mine was signed at the bottom right corner, and the field was not that dark. It was also taken way before September 2011, that’s just when they got their hands on it. It was also not taken in Oklahoma, this sunset belongs to New Mexico land of enchantment.! Never did I think someone would stick so low and be disrespectful and steal my photo and try and pass it on as theirs

The second email arrived one month later in August and was from a reader named Vickey Dean:

The American Flag Sunset photo was taken by my husband, Todd Dean. We still have the photo file on his phone and it shows that he took it and when. It is annoying that someone else has taken credit for his photo. He used it as his screen saver for years after he took it. He still has the photo downloaded on his phone. I know that it's not a big deal, but it really annoys me that some lady is saying that she took it... when I know 100% without a doubt (because I was there) that he took it. We have the original photo if you would like to see it. I hope that you will make a correction to your article and give the real photographer his proper credit. Thanks, Vickey Dean

We reached out to both Mowles and Dean for more details. While Dean did not respond to our questions, Mowles claimed that the picture was taken on May 21, 2011 at around 5:50 p.m. Mowles also provided what appeared to be proof with a geolocation of where the photo was shot. The image showed the city of Tucumcari, New Mexico.

We then contacted Rose about the two other people claiming credit for the photo. By email, Rose said, "These individuals harassing me over my photo really need to stop. I fully acknowledge that other people may have taken a similar photograph; however, the one I posted on my social media with my watermarks (that was later reposted without my consent) is fully mine." She then provided details from what she said was the original file, including coordinates to a street in Oklahoma.

We cannot definitively say without a shadow of a doubt who took the photo. However, Rose provided the most evidence. Meanwhile, Mowles provided some proof and Dean has yet to respond to our messages.

Note: During the course of our search for the origins of the picture, we also found quite a few other interesting photographs that somewhat resembled the American flag.

Updates

On Sept. 7, 2022, this story was updated after two other people claimed credit for the picture.

Jordan Liles is a Senior Reporter who has been with Snopes since 2016.