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Take stock: how photography is secretly shaping our society

It's not clear whether these cheesy images reflect the world or impose it, but changemakers think its the latter.

25 Jan 2021

A woman sits alone. All she has for company is a humble bowl of salad. Despite this, her eyes are nearly closed, her nose wrinkled with euphoric laughter. ‘Woman laughing at salad’ is a stock image trope that spawned its own Tumblr and eventually a satirical play in 2016, which dissected how hilarious greens became so entrenched in our visual lexicon that stock sites and publications churned out this motif again and again. 

Stock photography has long had an image problem. Ranging from the banal to the bizarre, these often cheesy images have aimed to provide a snapshot of everyday life to be used in media, advertising, web design and beyond. However, their prevalence comes great responsibility. As images that are supposed to symbolise everyday life, they tread a tricky tightrope of reflecting the world and imposing on it. Inside the woman-laughing-at-salad trend is a message about what we expect women to be. She should gleefully partake in diet culture, she should be pleasant, presentable and beaming regardless of the situation – even if her only company is literally a bowl of salad.  

Stock image giant, Shutterstock, released a trend report this week that outlines what images people wanted to see in 2020. They found that demand for inclusivity and representation had skyrocketed with a 2,300% search for non-binary people and 133% more users were looking for ‘authentic people’. There is a hunger to see stock images that are more reflective of the modern world. When sites like Shutterstock, iStock, Adobe, and Getty recycle overwhelmingly white, heteronormative and stereotypical scenarios, it renders all who fall outside of this as somehow abnormal or niche. If a queer black couple having a nice date is a rarer find than funny salad there’s an issue. No wonder, therefore, there are signs of a movement to change the status quo.

We don’t have the usage rights for ‘woman laughing with salad’ but there is a funny strawberry that is free to use. Courtesy of Deposit Photos

In a way, “stock” has become a “dirty word” says Ashleigh Kane, a curator and art buyer at Thursdays Child, which provides a platform for emerging unsigned photographers. “It feels like there’s not enough effort in [them] and they lose meaning the more you see them.” The organisation recently teamed up with Trunk Archive to launch a portal of images and videos that will revitalise the image licensing arena by creating a library of ready-to-use images from artists’ portfolios. Thursday’s Child also gives photographers more of a say as to where the images will appear. This is to avoid situations like ‘Fatima-gate’, where the British government, who has offered little help to the struggling arts in the pandemic, used an image pulled from licence free stock image site Unsplash to suggest ballet dancers should retrain in tech (or cyber), much to the photographer’s disappointment.

According to her, Stock’s lack of intentionality and lack of specificity is how it’s become so homogeneous. “As soon as I think of stock I cringe. It’s not a reality I recognise,” she says, explaining that she’s moved by images that have a story behind them. Thursday’s Child and Trunk Archive have images from artists based in Accra, Ghana to cities in Australia (“they’re taken by women, there’s queer gazes, black people, Indian people”), and in inviting all these perspectives, the library is diversifying the aesthetic across media and advertising. 

The genre is so pervasive that you can spot one from a mile away as characters gesticulate wildly, contort their faces to convey our full emotional range, and exhibit the full depth of the human experience as these fake characters navigate work, social settings or leisure. Their composition, harsh lighting and how they manage to be both overacted and tedious – over time we’ve all become fluent in the visual language of stock. 

“As soon as I think of stock I cringe. It’s not a reality I recognise”

Just as the images themselves are coded, the lack of availability of images that don’t contain straight, thin white people definitely is too. Visiting a site like Shutterstock and searching a term like “entrepreneur” throws up over 1 million results, the first of which is a black woman who appears to be a designer. Almost 595,000 of them include white people compared to 20,000 with black people. Perhaps this is why in recent years we’ve seen the major sites move to partner with media organisations and prolific contemporary photographers to produce collections that challenge the status quo. 

To remedy this we’re now seeing an increase in sites that have been developed specifically to address the issue of representation in stock. Sites like Queer Illustrations, Eyeem, and Broadly’s Gender spectrum collection aim to showcase different ethnicities, body types, gender identities and sexualities. 

Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi founded TONL which hosts photos of people of colour. She tells gal-dem that besides addressing the diversity gap, she wanted to create “images that are too beautiful to be a meme”. Okonkwo explains that she started the business after she found it impossible to illustrate her sorority blog at college and previously told Forbes that she began to see photography as a way to “humanise and hopefully diminish the stereotypes and prejudice against black and brown people”. She and her business partner were spurned to create TONL after a tragic police brutality incident. Even if it isn’t immediately obvious, there is a connection between the two.

“From a social standpoint, when you only portray one type of person in media, young children have a belief that beauty is cis, white, heterosexual – so they can grow up with a low self image,” she explains. “At the very least, they will grow up with unconscious biases connected to what beauty is.” In the REACH Media Analysis report done by Cardiff University, it was found that seven out of 10 stories of young black men related to some form of crime. If these are the only scenarios we see a demographic in, rather than positions of entrepreneurship (as previously mentioned), domesticity, and normality, the seeds of prejudice are sown. “We need to change the version of ‘traditional’ that people have grown to expect and see,” she adds.

“We need to change the version of ‘traditional’ that people have grown to expect and see”

Over the last decade there have been glimpses of progress on the behemoth stock sites that dominate the genre. For example the most popular picture of a woman on Getty was a naked woman under a towel in 2007; by 2017 it was a woman hiking alone in Banff National Park. Pam Grossman, a director at Getty, told The New York Times that it felt like “an image about power, about freedom”. It’s hard to prove whether stock sites, which are used for content in print and digital media, are reflecting or influencing the zeitgeist. 

Over at Shutterstock there is now an internal organisation, the aptly-named Shade (Shutterstock Afro-Descendant Employees), which aims to aid the advancement and retention of black staff. The group is also passionate about increasing the diversity of models and photographers on the platform, showing that stock sites are intentionally trying to change what we see.

Determined to not get left behind, the traditional stock sites are commissioning new, on-the-rise photographers (often collaborating with youthful publications like Vice) to add a fresh perspective and modern feel to the aged genre.

In 2017, Campbell Addy lensed a cast from Niiagency, his diverse modelling agency, for Getty. Each softly lit close-up is labelled as “Portrait of young person holding ambiguous gaze”, featuring an albino man, youthful piercings, kinky afros, chic garms and androgynous looks. They stand in contrast to the images you will find of young people on stock photos. Usually bearing no resemblance to any millennial or Gen Z you will see if you look outside in the real world or even in digital spaces that lead on aesthetic trends like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. That same year Getty published a feminist-centric collection created with Sheryl Sandberg, the most purchased image being a woman at work designing shoes alongside a black male co-worker; The next they teamed up with Refinery 29 to launch ‘The 67% collection’ to accurately represent America’s plus size women. Some of these collaborations involved commercial partners like Dove.

Rochelle Brockington, who shot images for a Refinery 29 and Getty collaboration, says she got involved as stock imagery makes her feel “out of the loop”, so she wanted to “amplify a voice that has been stifled for years”. Her images for the series communicate beauty, complexity and positivity. “My ‘flaws’ aren’t flaws at all! You don’t see that message often. To have these images used in everyday ads targeted for Gen Z and millennial women is amazing,” she says. 

“The cultural impact of not being able to see yourself in the media is one where you either want to radically be seen and make as much of an impact as possible, or you shrink and accept that the world doesn’t see you,” she says. “I’ve been both of those people. When you add being black, a woman, and even plus size into the mix, the idea of you being represented outside of a health ad or a joke was almost non-existent up until a few years ago.”

Echoing Karen’s words she feels that a lack of visibility leaves marginalised people being “subconsciously forgotten”. “That can affect everything from basic human rights, public opinion, or how you’re treated, say by the medical industry for example. All of it is connected.”

The move for authenticity in stock is coinciding with the political growing pains we’re experiencing as we imagine what a bold new world will look like after the pandemic. The days of cheesy, comical, and sometimes unsettling stock may soon draw to a close as people begin to crave meaning or relatability in their imagery. 

With initiatives coming from stock site giants and new and more diverse sites applying pressure, there is hope that by the end of this decade, the content we consume will look radically different. Hopefully, the real world follows suit.