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The Weird Wild World of Stock Photography

What comes to mind when you think “businesswoman”? Is it a woman climbing a ladder in a suit and stilettos? A woman wearing boxing gloves and not much else?  Or maybe a woman in a skirt and heels laboriously climbing a mountain. No? If you don’t instantly jump to picturing a  Woman Laughing Alone With Salad when thinking of 50%+ of professionals, chances are you’re not a stock photographer. Welcome to my world – it’s kinda strange around here.


I find stock photography fascinating and deeply entertaining, and as designers, image sourcing is part of our job. But the lack of reality in stock photography often makes it incredibly difficult to find authentic photos for some normal, everyday contexts, let alone those that that reflect nuanced topics like illness, motherhood, race or gender.

The problem lies in the way stock photographers work. While most photographers will work to a brief and design a shoot accordingly, stock photographers work only to their own imaginations and guesswork about what designers and marketers might be looking for.  The result is that stock photo agencies have a tendency to invent situations that no one would ever encounter in real life (how many times have you taken a tray of cookies out of the oven while wearing a gas mask?). Usually, they just end up feeling clichéd but sometimes they can be pretty problematic too.

Imagery has become the key communication medium of this generation – just look at the popularity of Instagram and Snapchat. How people are portrayed visually often influences how people are seen and perceived. And from a design perspective that’s powerful.

But we also need to think about what’s missing. Particularly in Australia, with our wonderfully multicultural society, I get the guilts when I’m unable to represent in stock imagery the compelling diversity we see in everyday life. There is nothing more frustrating and defeating than endlessly trawling multiple stock libraries, with limited time and budget, for a photo of a young indigenous Australian university student. Spoiler – no results.

So what exactly does stock photography tell us about ourselves? Let’s do a test by typing ‘sporty man’ into Shutterstock’s search engine. We get this:

Image credit: Ollyy, Shutterstock

What a fit, sporty, satisfied man he seems.

Type ‘sporty woman’ and we get this:

Image credit: Maksim Shmeljov, Shutterstock

She might be sporty, I can’t quite tell. However, she seems to be missing pants, and a face – both things that most sportspeople have. The implications being, of course, that women’s fitness is more to do with aesthetics and conventional beauty standards than any kind of mental and physical wellness or fulfillment. As a designer that’s the last thing I want to portray, and I’m fairly confident in saying my clients don’t want that either.

Lee Chapman, a researcher at Ryerson University in Canada, who wrote her thesis on the lack of female presence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) stock images, notes that “men in stock photos play the lead role, often directing the women in the images.” She suggests that this subtle power dynamic can often go unnoticed, but “registers somewhere and is developed as a ‘normal’ idea without you… even noticing.”

Image credit: Stocked House Studio, Shutterstock

Hello, yes I am your sexy doctor.

And for certain racial minorities, the problem is just as bad. A comparatively tiny number of the photographs tagged “Indigenous Australian” depict people in professional or educational situations, and this hardly represents the breadth of circumstances and lifestyles experienced by our First Peoples. People of Indian and Asian identities don’t do too much better.

When you compare representations of these minorities with their ethnically European counterparts, then stock imagery puts forward very different standards for each. While this may reflect certain imbalances in our society, surely the most effective way to change the way people think about something is to change the visuals around it.

The good news is that as designers and marketers (the customers of stock photography) we have the power to change this. If not for the sake of a fairer and more equal society (although I hope it’s for that reason!) then at least for the sake of more accurate and effective marketing.

The ubiquity of social media has given people the ability to accurately represent themselves through photos, which throws the typical clichéd portrayals of stock photography into sharp relief. That means stock photography that obviously doesn’t ring true with reality, whether it’s a woman laughing with salad or because of a lack of indigenous uni students, sticks out like a sore thumb for all the wrong reasons. That’s no good for building brand affinity and selling products or services.

And the stock industry is starting to pay attention.

Notably, Sheryl Sandberg and her organisation Lean In partnered with Getty Images a few years ago to both collate and commission a collection of images aimed at moving past outdated gender roles, filling in cultural gaps, and providing a range of insightful and diverse photographic identities of women and the people around them.

Shutterstock specifically deals with the issue by sending representatives around the world to speak to contributors, encouraging them to shoot more diverse, inclusive images. Yet another way agencies are dealing with this issue is by playing with their search algorithms to ensure their more recent images appear at the top of search results, burying their less contemporary counterparts in pages of search results.

If we designers and marketers of the world continue to support images that accurately reflect life over those that don’t, the stock agencies will keep pushing harder for these images to become the norm. And our work will be better for it.

Life is creative, messy, complex and diverse. Let’s push for the way we communicate visually to be the same.