Archival photos are terrible at depicting mental and physical illnesses.


Archival photos are ubiquitous and infamous. The concepts are often absurd. Models are disproportionately white, not to mention atypically young, beautiful and able-bodied. Outdated gender norms seem to be easily reinforced. Article after article has shown that stock photography generally sucks. But where the limitations of stock photography are most evident – ​​and deserve special consideration – is in the depiction of mental and physical illness.

The area of ​​most egregious offense is mental health (no surprise there). In archival footage, almost anyone with a mental health condition can be reduced to a person on the ground with their head in their hands. “Headclutcher” images are often “labeled” as representing multiple mental health issues, from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but there are subtle subcategories as well. When I looked at these images on iStock and Shutterstock, two of the most popular stock photography sites on the web, I was struck by the difference between “head in hands with face obscured”, which seemed to indicate shame, and “head in hands”. with face visible,” which seemed to indicate some sort of internal struggle. Mental illness and depression featured a mix of both trope subcategories, but the “head in hands” labeling as “addiction” really extended the idea of ​​shame.

Could his forehead be more wrinkled?


Even if you don’t think it’s offensive (“Oh, it’s just a picture!”), a lot of people do, especially those living with mental illness. The theme of “headache” and the emphasis on psychic pain have been derided as a hackneyed approach to describing the true diversity of mental illness. Get the Picture is one of many campaigns that aims to improve stock photos related to mental illness by providing better alternatives for free. It started in part as a reaction to the trope of the head-in-hands image, according to Rehaan Ansari, medical student and campaign model:

The ‘headband’ is an unfair and inaccurate portrayal of what life with a mental health condition is like, but it’s often the image most often associated with people who suffer from it. It’s definitely time to change the retrograde attitude that mental health issues are a shame.

Searching for “cancer” brings up images of women wearing comforting scarves.


Physical illnesses and medical procedures are also dominated by a few visual themes. Search results for “cancer” on Shutterstock are dominated by women in groups dressed in pink and smiling, while “cancer” on iStock features images of women with their heads wrapped and being comforted by loved ones. Photographers have also agreed to capture your lower back as the universal sign of kidney disease and capture your chest as the international image of a heart attack.

A chest hold is the universal sign of a heart attack in the land of stock photos.


Surgery, meanwhile, is divided into a few camps: well-lit Grey’s Anatomy–style operating rooms; plastic surgery patients with Sharpie lined skin; and some close-ups of real surgeries – and the blood and guts needed. Epidemiologists, meanwhile, have criticized the use of archival photographs that highlight large needles or feature crying children. While that might not sound like much to you, experts worry it might deter people from getting vaccinated or reinforce anti-vaccine attitudes people already have.

Still, the weirdest findings are definitely back in the realm of mental health — for OCD. This query revealed an unusual number of images of people staring at their hands and biting their nails. While there are likely several factors at play, resorting to this trope seems simple enough: nail biting is the most photogenic manifestation of OCD, so it’s popular with photographers.

Nail biting is easier to describe than the real, more abstract symptoms of OCD.


Stock photographer and stock image moderator Rich Legg says the need for simplicity and a semblance of universality is precisely what makes stock photography so difficult. The whole goal of the industry is to create functional stereotypes. But stereotypes aren’t cool anymore, which has forced stock photographers to scramble to create representative images that are endlessly applicable, but not so reductive that they become offensive.

When it comes to TOC, this problem quickly becomes apparent. Biting your nails is much easier to imagine than abstract problems like “compulsive thoughts”. So even though compulsive thoughts are much more central to a diagnosis of OCD, nail biting quickly dominated our visual language for the disorder. (Perhaps that’s for the best, since one of the top search results is a “comical” take on OCD: a man cutting his lawn with child-sized scissors, apparently so that each blade of grass is the same height.)

We seem to increasingly agree that many stock photographs are silly at best and harmful at worst. But what do we do with it? While Legg says change won’t be easy, it’s already happening. In recent years, he and others have shifted their focus from simple, pretty photos and instead favored photos that look realistic. A few years ago, Legg said he called the local modeling agency to get glamorous 19-year-olds to play scientists in a rented lab. But now it’s more deliberate to find age-appropriate actors and do extra research before potentially sensitive shoots. These days he tries to take it a step further by using real people in some of his photo shoots instead of actors. A few years ago he was careful to ask a nurse friend to advise him on a photo shoot featuring an able-bodied girl in a wheelchair, but in a more recent shoot he just asked someone who uses a wheelchair in real life to serve as a model for him.

It remains to be seen whether these more conscientious images are purchased and used at the same rates as their more stereotypical (but still commercially successful) counterparts. Because that’s the thing with stock photography: it’s not enough for photographers to simply change what they’re shooting, even if it’s important. The real change must come from the consumers, the people for whom these images are made. To ensure respectful and diverse photos, photographers will need to continue self-reflection and experimentation, and we will all need to work a little harder to deconstruct the stereotypes we hold in our heads.


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