say you do a website and want to include a photo of a female CEO. Where would you get one? You can go to a stock photography site and search for “female CEO” or “female boss.” What you’d get: A woman in a pencil skirt and high heels menacingly threatening a cowering man, or a woman in a sports suit waving her fist at you. Subtle! And that’s just the tip of a surreal iceberg of ridiculous images.
Stock photography is one of the weirdest features of our highly visual media landscape and Tumblr. More and more people are posting photos on sites and more and more cash-strapped news organizations are resorting to cheap stock photos.
The problem is that most of these photographs are hopelessly overused. Search a stock photography site for “work” and you’ll see smiling corporate replicators shaking hands for a totally awesome deal they apparently just signed. Search “family” and see phalanxes of Stepford white middle-class mothers, fathers and children. Journalist Jessica Bennett tells how a gender studies researcher at Stanford searched for an image of a female plumber and got women in lingerie, holding wrenches. When Hend Amry, a Libyan-American writer, searched “Arabic” to find stock photos for a friend’s website, she found images of masked terrorists holding machine guns, sheikhs posing next to -oil shapes and a woman wearing a headgear holding a knife. in his mouth. “I did a double take,” she said, half laughing and half furious. Amry put the worst offenders on a Tumblr with sour captions, and it went viral. It’s funny, but as Amry points out, these images have an existential charge. “They define the limits of what an Arab is,” she adds. “It becomes iconic.”
Let me be blunt: stock photography has to die. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell argued that cliché language produces cliché thought. Using an outdated image, as he put it, “makes it easier for us to have silly thoughts.” Stock photography imprisons us in the same cognitive prison. His deliberately bland images are designed to be usable in many loosely defined situations. It produces miserable photography for the same reason Hallmark cards produce miserable poetry. We live in a visual world, communicating and thinking in pictures. When we use stock photos, we think in cliches.
However, the stock market may finally be reforming itself. This spring, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation hired Bennett to work with Getty Images on a collection of 2,500 realistic photos of women and girls. Instead of corporate Kabuki women wearing red boxing gloves, the collection features women who work from home; some even have wrinkles. It’s not just about doing business good. Customers began asking Getty for more accurate stock photos. “We’re seeing a pendulum swing toward this authentic culture,” said Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty.
But don’t wait for the pros to act. You take pictures every day, many of which I bet are stunning. Many photo-sharing sites allow you to use a Creative Commons license, allowing others to use your photos. (A bunch of my own photos are on Flickr.) If everyone reading this article posted their best snapshots online, we could sow hundreds of thousands of free photos of real things and real people in the real world. The real cure for stock photography is inside your camera phone.