The problem – as first reported by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim – was that the image was a stock photo of a woman in Kenya who apparently has nothing to do with the campaign.
But Fox News has learned that the photo mix-up was far from an isolated case for the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s White House campaign. Its website has used other stock pictures of black individuals seemingly unaffiliated with the campaign, especially in promoting “the Douglass Plan,” which is billed as an investment in the “empowerment of black America.”
While campaigns have long used generic stills and clips in ads and elsewhere, they sometimes do so at their own peril. And for Buttiegieg – who’s soared to top-tier status in recent weeks, particularly in Iowa, but still struggles with black voters who compose roughly one-fifth of the primary electorate – the dust-up over stock photos falls within a sensitive area for the campaign. It comes as he’s launching a new effort to court black voters with series of events surrounding Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a rival for the Democratic nomination and one of several black candidates in the 2020 race, called it "a big mistake."
Speaking at a campaign event in Nevada on Monday, she said: "He's going to have to answer for that. ... Let's be clear that the Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are, as the diversity of the American people."
Buttigieg’s proposal – named the Douglass Plan after the abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass – was rolled out in July. The plan calls for changes to the nation’s health, education and criminal justice systems to combat institutional racism.
The Buttigieg campaign told Fox News that the Kenya photo "was removed from the page on our website promoting the Douglass Plan months ago as part of a regular update. However, we know we owe an explanation for how it came to be used to begin with. Using stock photos is standard practice across many campaigns."
"The stock photo in question, which is widely utilized across the Internet, was initially selected while a contractor was running our site, and the website it was pulled from did not indicate the photo was taken in Kenya in any way. As our campaign has grown, we have brought all of our web development in-house to help guard against mistakes like this. We apologize for its use and the confusion it created," added Sean Savett, the Buttigieg campaign's rapid response communications director.
While the campaign has mostly taken down the image of the woman kneeling next to a child – replacing it with an image that features Buttigieg – it still appears on an active page that is separate from the website. Further, several additional stock images of minorities have been used by the campaign, including at least one that remained on the main Douglass Plan site until Monday afternoon, when Fox News first flagged it.
The Douglass Plan page had featured a stock photo of a black female student sitting on steps, with text that read: “American needs to create an education system that trains and empowers the next generation of black scientists, artists, writers, college professors, lawyers, tech entrepreneurs, doctors, software engineers, police officers, teachers, and so much more. Yet today, too many children of color are being denied educational justice.”
According to the photo site Pexels, the picture of the student is from the stock photo site “Nappy,” which offers “beautiful, high-res photos of black and brown people. For free.”
The campaign removed the picture on Monday to "eliminate any confusion," after being notified of it by Fox News.
Another stock photo, showing a black child running through a sprinkler, was captioned, “Freedom.” The picture was originally posted on Unsplash.com and published on Aug. 22, 2016. That photo is no longer on the website.
The Douglass Plan section wasn’t the only one to feature stock pictures of minorities. The candidate’s Climate Plan For Latinx and Black Communities has featured an uncaptioned photo of a Hurricane Katrina survivor. According to Getty Images, the black-and-white photo was taken on Oct. 1, 2005, of a Pearlington, Miss., resident who had helped an elderly neighbor escape rising floodwaters. (That photo remains on an active web page affiliated with the campaign, along with the Kenya photo that was removed from the main Douglass Plan page.)
The photo of the woman in Kenya went viral over the weekend, igniting plenty of criticism on social media that there’s a disconnect between Buttigieg’s campaign and minority voters. Grim tweeted that the woman in the photo by Nicholas Githiri reached out to him “very confused.” He said the campaign grabbed the photo from a stock photo service, and the subject “didn’t intend to pose for a stock photo but did agree to be photographed.”
High-profile Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota – who is a Somalia-born refugee – criticized Buttigieg for the photo faux pas. “This is not ok or necessary,” she tweeted.
While Buttigieg’s poll numbers are soaring in Iowa and New Hampshire – the two mostly white states that kick off the presidential nominating calendar – surveys indicate the candidate is struggling to connect with black voters. In South Carolina, where a majority of likely Democratic presidential primary voters are African-American, a new Quinnipiac University poll released Monday indicated Buttigieg at less than 1 percent among black voters.
This isn't the first unforced error for Buttigieg when it comes to black voters.
The campaign's still dealing with clean-up after unveiling a large list of some 400 South Carolina Democrats who backed the Douglass Plan. But some of those listed later reportedly said they're supporting other candidates in the Democratic nomination race.
And last month, the campaign removed as a co-host of a Buttigieg fundraiser a Chicago attorney who pushed to block the release of a video showing the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
McDonald was killed in 2014 by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. A court-ordered video showed McDonald walking away from the police when he was slain, rather than charging them as the offices had claimed.
“Pete’s campaign is a media-savvy and disciplined campaign; but everything he does from here on out is under a microscope, and with that more pressure for him and his team," said veteran Democratic strategist Michael Ceraso.
"He’ll need to be close to perfect between now and the Iowa caucus to keep the media from writing negative stories about his perceived inability to appeal to Latino and African America voters. He has to show he can both win early in the Democratic primary calendar and resonate in diverse communities before Nevada and South Carolina to convert voters who are on the fence to vote for him," said Ceraso, a New Hampshire state director for Buttigieg before parting ways this summer.
"Pete’s team doesn’t have the time to react to unforced errors that will distract his campaign team from doing that," he added.
But longtime Democratic consultant Bill Burton -- national press secretary for Barack Obama's historic 2008 campaign who later helped steer the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA -- said that "this distraction is small."
"I've been on the giving and receiving end of these sort of attacks and they rarely have an impact," Burton said.
Fox News' Tara Prindiville contributed to this report.