Our photos suck


By Nichole Fernández (Editor)

I am the person responsible for most of the photos you see at the top of all the articles published on this blog. Every week I sift through thousands of stock photos to pick something that is both free and illustrates adequately the article’s subject. I also go through a similar stock photo selection process for other design projects like posters and advertisements. In my life, I have spent countless hours sorting through thousands of stock photos looking for the perfect one. To choose a stock photo I stick to three main criteria:

  1. The stock photo must fit the subject of the article or project
  2. The stock photo must look professional and attractive  
  3. The stock photo must be socially conscious

These may not seem like difficult criteria to find in a photo. But based on the hours I have spent tirelessly failing to do just that, I can tell you that it’s not easy. Granted, there are subjects that are just difficult to visualize like the article we posted on genital mutilation, or topics that are highly theoretical. But there are many topics that are easily visualized where the photo just doesn’t exist.

While making a poster for a lecture about online dating between older couples, I found it difficult to find images of older individuals that were not about health. Even harder was to find an image of someone over 50 using technology. When looking for images of women, they tend to be more posed, while images of men are generally portrayed as doing something. And that is not even mentioning the unattainable level of ‘beauty’ that these images convey for both men and women.

In addition to there being more stock photos of men than women, images of non-heterosexual couples are still rare and tend to reproduce stereotypes. The term “gay” in stock image search engines brings up mostly non-human representations, such as rainbow flags. The representations of gay couples that do exist are generally much less affectionate than heterosexual couples.

Images of work, meetings, and business are, not surprisingly, dominated by white men. Some images of professional women exist, but they tend to be aesthetically poor, staged, and do not represent women of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In fact, representations of minorities are very rare. For an article about student workload, I can find an image of both male and female students working. But finding an image of a non-white student that meets all three criteria is impossible. Therefore, in the end I will normally be forced to choose an image of a white student because it meets the criteria, thereby reinforcing these inequalities.

That’s why stock images make me so angry. I want to represent the social world in more accurate and reasonable ways, I want to represent the world more fairly, I want to see images of people in my designs that I can relate to, I want to create designs that others can relate to, and I want to make a small but meaningful stand against the inequalities of visual representation within our society. And on top of that, I don’t want to have to sacrifice style and aesthesis to do so. I want to be able to make a poster that doesn’t reproduce the white, gendered, middleclass, skinny images that bombard us in everyday life. I don’t want to have to publish another image on this blog of a generic field or sunset because there are no images that represent the real social world we live in. But right now I cannot accomplish these things because the photos I want don’t exist. I often feel as though I am settling and I am often settling at the expense of my most valued criteria, number 3, using images that are socially aware.

I am not the first to bring up this discussion of the lack of diversity in stock photos; this topic has been explored everywhere from Wired to independent blogs. However, there is a lack of discussion around specifically free stock photos (as opposed to ones you pay for), and the potential they have to change this system.

Every week, more and more free stock photos are uploaded to hundreds of sites across the internet, and every week I look at these new stock photos in the hopes that they will be more inclusive and less reductive. But every week I am disappointed by the photos I see.

Granted, in recent years I have seen stock photos become less “cheesy” and represent more convincingly real emotions. I have seen stock images start catching up with trends and becoming more useable. This positive change in stock photos has really been driven by the increase in free stock photo sites, and quality free stock images have grown significantly.

But there are still huge downsides. I see stock images becoming more vague with images of silhouettes and feet, images of open roads and generic nature. I have also noticed images becoming more filtered and representing an unrealistic vision of society through romanticizing colors and perfect settings. Stock images have done a better job at becoming trendier and keeping up with technological changes in society and our daily life, but they still aren’t becoming more diverse and representational of our real social world. There are stock photos of Apple watches and iPhones, but not women of color or untraditional families. There are images of young, active, and trendy couples but there are very few images of the elderly in daily life. There are images of pristine nature and changing seasons, but no images of the reality of climate change and environmental threat. There are trendy nostalgic images of vintage furniture but very few images non-western societies.

There are some sites that do focus on more diverse and fair stock photos like SheStock, Blend, CreateHer, Color Stock, and the project between LeanIn and Getty. But these images aren’t free and accessible to everyone. Additionally these images will often represent one type of diversity but not another, for example images of women of color that still present women as overly sexualized, with one body type, and for a male gaze. I focus here on free stock images because I believe this is how the revolution in stock images is going to happen. Free stock images are made by us, by the general public; hobby photographers, professional photographers, designers; anyone can open a profile on many free stock image websites. Images on large site like ShutterStock and Getty have a site of production (professional photographers and a corporate organizational structure), a site of circulation (the website), a site of consumption (the people who pay for the image), and the audience (the people who view the images).

The lack of diverse stock photos is not just the fault of the website, it is a combination of all of these four sites; the photographer that takes the photo, the website that publishes it, the advertisers and designers that purchase and use them, and the audience that accepts the images. They are also a symptom of wider social inequalities. I see free stock photos as a way of collapsing these four sites in order to challenge social inequalities. We can all take images and post them to free stock photo sites that are freely available to all. These are the images that are going to portray real people, real emotions, and real diversity.

Images matter. They are everywhere, communicating subtle messages to us about how the world is structured. As visual forms of communication continue to increase, we need to become aware of the inequalities that they can create. So please give us better images, upload your own images, and lets all stop settling for inadequate visual stereotypes of the social world we live in.