The tyranny of archival photos

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The first emails and calls began just a year later in 2003, when a Massachusetts court ruling opened the door to same-sex marriage. The photos had been sold to the Getty photography company IMagi. Suddenly, photos of Ramos and his friend accompanied articles in alternative weeklies on same-sex marriage, a health awareness campaign for Latinos in Los Angeles, and an advertisement in a San Diego Opera Weekly. Friends and family who saw the two men
smiling from a billboard or at the top of an article about marriage mostly wanted to know when he got married – he didn’t – and offer his congratulations. The questions from his clients were a little more awkward.

“But so far [the uses have] everything was incredibly tasteful, so my premise – what harm could come of this? — came true,” he said.

Ramos usually tells the story for a laugh. But others had more uncomfortable stories. In 2015, a judge agreed that Avril Nolan, an aspiring model living in Brooklyn, was entitled to defamation money from the New York State Division of Human Rights after she was became the face of the division’s advertising campaign promoting the rights of HIV-positive New Yorkers. The campaign featured Nolan’s photo, sold by Getty Images, alongside the words “I am Positive (+)”. She is not
. In a decision that has stoked the ire of the HIV-positive community, a judge agreed that HIV is a “repugnant” disease from a defamatory point of view. She also demanded $450,000 from Getty, but settled the dispute privately.

There are many other cautionary tales of people finding their own smiling or grimacing face from an advertisement or article. While there is a certain element of “signer beware,” these stories also underscore the unspoken understanding that the photo selling the product or the news is not necessarily related. This couple is not a couple; this HIV-positive woman is not. Humans place inordinate trust in what they see, so it is deeply shocking to discover that their eyes have lied to them. The deluge of archival photographs we are swimming in these days means we are being lied to more and more. And we rarely notice it.

At the age fake news, this paradigm seems more than a little sinister. Stock photos often accompany articles from widely recognized bogus news sites. “We have seen that a lot of fake news stories, unlike the hoaxes and captions of the past, are loaded with photos. They start by presenting you with the awesome image and they build a story that has nothing to do with it” , said Alexios Mantzarlis, director of Poynter’s international fact-checking network, “And all the photos – stock or not – give the stories more credibility.

Stock photography has been around since the 1890s. Photo libraries first served the editorial needs of the emerging magazine industry, offering staged photographs of people or animals. After World War I, news photo agencies sprung up to serve newspapers and news agencies, as well as a growing number of magazines such as LIFE. The business grew further in the 1970s, when stock photos began to flow into corporate advertising and marketing. In the 1990s, stocks were a billion-dollar industry dominated by a few global giants, including Getty and Corbis. Stock photos have become, as Paul Frosh described them in his 2003 book, “The Image Factory”, “the wallpaper of consumer culture”.

And then, of the digital world. In 2001 alone, Getty’s online sales skyrocketed from 48% of its total sales in the third quarter to 61% in the fourth. During this time, the types of images that stock photo companies were selling also changed. Just like their customers. As the amount of editorial content on the web grew, so did the need to illustrate it in some way. If it would be possible to publish an article in print without an image, it would be unthinkable to do so online. The stock image market is currently valued at around $4 billion, much of it in microstock, ie low-cost, royalty-free images. For a simple “wallpaper” there is a lot of money and power at stake.

“Images are very powerful in the way they frame a story, whether or not they’re related to the story,” explained Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist at Fielding Graduate University. For example, a 2007 study found that associating an image of a brain scan with an article about cognitive neuroscience research increases the reader’s rating of the article’s scientific reasoning. (Rutledge said a colleague once told him to include images of brains in his speeches to boost his credibility.) “We know that the visual context of any story influences our understanding of it, it prepares us to a certain way of thinking,” Rutledge said. “Whether you call it manipulation or facilitation of information is entirely up to the producer’s intent.”

Our interest in visual information is part of what makes us human. “Images are a much more effective way to provide information than text,” Rutledge said. “We are driven by a biological survival imperative to get as much information about our environment as possible. This reassures us.”

Does the outsized influence of visual information on our perception and decision-making mean that photo companies have a special obligation to monitor the use of their products? Stock photography companies already police the use of their products, sometimes aggressively. Shutterstock, a company that made nearly $500 million last year, states in its license agreement that the buyer cannot “[p]or betray any person depicted in the visual content (a “model”) in a way that a reasonable person would find offensive” or “[u]view any visual content in a pornographic, defamatory or misleading context, or in a way that could be considered libelous, obscene or illegal. Image tracing is getting easier, and corporations are doing it, in part to make sure people pay for the images they use (Getty is widely known to sue unauthorized use of his images) .

“Shutterstock proactively monitors certain content and investigates every misuse complaint we receive, many of which relate to alleged misuse by Shutterstock customers,” Shutterstock general counsel Heidi Garfield said via email. noting that the company’s more than 190,000 contributors are “empowered” to monitor their own image and raise concerns. “We must periodically request the removal of content . . . including, as recent examples, content that suggests association with escort services, implies intent to cause serious harm to government officials, or suggests that an individual is suffering from a medical condition.

Regarding the much maligned fake news, Garfield pointed to the clause prohibiting buyers from using an image in a “defamatory or misleading manner”, adding, “The proliferation of fake news or websites that provide outlets for false news, is likely drawing more attention to the misuse of visual content, and we’re always responsive to claims of misuse.

But things get thorny where free speech issues are always thorny. Jim Pickerell, photographer and editor of commercial photography business news site Selling Stock, said via email: “How could anyone in the commercial photography business determine that the story illustrated by a particular photo is fake or real?” Any photo may distort; the question is intentional.

Nevertheless, Stock photography is deceptive in a special way: on the face of it, the camera doesn’t lie, but our brain inevitably jumps to conclusions about what it captures. Of course, these two men in front of a rainbow flag are a couple! Sometimes stock photography erodes real, literal truth. “Stock photos are used for the dumbest things, and in doing so, we’ve kind of accepted this suspension of disbelief when it comes to pictures,” Mantzarlis said. “And that’s dangerous, because seeing is believing.”

Photo companies could play a role in tracking down fake news and blatantly dishonest reporting. “It’s a massive effort that’s going to be needed, and there’s definitely room for action from these agencies,” Mantzarlis suggested. “It’s in no one’s interest to have a babelish Internet where it’s impossible to discern truth from lies.” More concretely, it could be useful for stock photo companies to ensure that their products are not misused or simply stolen. “You can’t be sued for posting fake news yet,” he noted. “But you can be sued for stealing someone’s photo.”

Shutterstock, for its part, is ready to play, although it is healthily wary of determining what is fake news in an increasingly hazy landscape. “It is likely that Shutterstock’s enforcement of its licenses may address certain false news, if, for example, such use is defamatory or misleading,” Garfield said. “However, we must be careful not to put ourselves in a position to take sides on an issue that, in some ways, represents a proxy for other broader societal differences.”

So who really has a responsibility here? No matter how divided they were on whether stock photography companies had an obligation to address fake news, nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed that the public does. If consumers become more adept at distinguishing truth from fiction, then stock photography can become harmless “wallpaper” again.

Until then, a little less confidence in the images we see may be just what we need.


Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.

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