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Making responsible stock photo choices

How can you intentionally select stock photos that promote diversity, respectful representation and social justice for underrepresented groups?

Black young man speaking out at a George Floyd Protest in Summer of 2020. He's wearing a tshirt that says "I love my history. I love my culture. I love my people. I love me." People of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are in the background behind him, some on one knee.

As a design firm focused on serving nonprofits, working with stock photos is part of our daily life. While some of our clients are lucky to have their own sources of custom photography, most have to rely on stock photo sources to give a human face to their work and tell their stories. Our commitment to ethical storytelling includes an acute awareness of our stock photo choices and how they matter toward moving our cultural norms forward or backward.

Sometimes we receive design directives that limit diversity — e.g. “Don’t use a photo of a gay couple in this piece because our audience will be put off by their sexuality.” (Yes, sadly, we have been told this.) We’ve also received requests to use stock photos only of Black people to meet “diversity targets,” but to them “diverse” equals “Black” and nothing else. Sometimes we’re given photos to use that don’t appear to have been selected with much cultural sensitivity at all.

We assume good intentions and put forward our best efforts to make our clients happy while doing what we can to overcome this thinking. But it’s important to know these mindsets are out there and they can impact our design choices.

Why do stock photo choices matter?

As described in our previous article, Visual design in ethical storytelling, how we choose, adjust and use imagery plays a major role in respectful storytelling. Ethical storytelling frameworks emphasize consent and directly verifying story contributors are comfortable with how you’re portraying them and their experiences.

Stock photos are different, though, because we’re not able to get consent from photo subjects or the communities they represent. This means we’re on our own to be as vigilant and responsible as we can when we’re selecting and preparing stock photos for our work.

Our choices create materials that represent others out in the world. Representation impacts not only how different groups see each other, but also how they see themselves. Audiences make conscious and subconscious assumptions about people, their communities and themselves based on how they’re represented in TV, film, the media, advertising, and—yes—even your nonprofit’s fundraising campaign.

What to avoid:

Even if unconscious or otherwise well-meaning, questionable stock photo choices can leave underrepresented groups feeling:

Invisible

Lack of representation says “we don’t see you” and “your group doesn’t matter.” For example, when was the last time you came across a stock photo of an individual using a wheelchair without directly searching for it? How does that reflect and perpetuate the general lack of public awareness around accommodations for people living with disabilities?

Unflatteringly portrayed

Sometimes the problem isn’t lack of visibility, it’s the wrong kind of visibility. Photos can reinforce stereotypes or represent certain groups in a negative light, making them seem strange, ridiculous or threatening. This communication of otherness and superior/inferior status can be overt or subtle.

Distanced

Stock photos of people from underrepresented groups often depict them in isolated portraits, separate from the background of daily life. In some cases, this can create a powerful sense of otherness and objectification, putting subjects on display as if they were on exhibit rather than showing them as actual people with human experience, context and community.

Reductively portrayed

While we sometimes have to walk the line and use symbolism to reference a particular group, be careful about overusing these symbols in a way that creates reductive assumptions about that group’s preferences or behavior. For example, if you search for LGBTQ+ in mainstream stock photo sources, you’ll get a flood of rainbow. It’s true that rainbow is a strong symbol for LGBTQ+ pride. Despite what you might see on stock photo sites, though, not all people who identify as LGBTQ+ love rainbows everywhere or want their lives to be seen as one big rainbow pride parade.

Whitewashed

It’s great to try to show people from underrepresented groups living normal lives. But what does “normal” mean here? Many stock photos transport people from marginalized groups into White context in unnatural and uncomfortable ways. They reinforce the view that photo subjects are only “normal” and acceptable if they’re in a context White mainstream people would find relatable or pleasant.

Another challenge: subjectivity and evolving awareness

Photo selection can be tricky with subjectivity, cultural context and nuance. Even well-meaning, reasonably educated and culturally-sensitive people can disagree on these things or accidentally offend someone as their awareness evolves. A wildly artistic, expressive representation of someone could come across as empowering and authentic to one audience member while appearing distancing and unsettling to another. A photo could feel whitewashed to one person but culturally appropriate to another.

We’re all constantly learning and just have to make our best choices with the awareness that not everyone may see it as we do.

How can you do better?

Here are some tips for improving how you use stock photos:

  • Intentionally bring in more variety, remembering that diversity is more than just skin color. Think not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but also ability, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, culture, etc. Increasing diversity of representation in your work can help remind your audience that these groups exist and matter. In a larger sense, it also helps to improve visibility and integrate these groups into mainstream culture. Need some broader options? Check out our post on culturally diverse stock photo sources to freshen up your searches.
  • Choose positive, respectful photos that demonstrate the strength, resilience, growth and progress of people and their communities. You want your photos to show acceptance and celebration not just of the people in them, but their unique backgrounds and cultural experiences.
  • While there is certainly a place for artistic and tastefully done portraits, be careful to balance these with photos of people in the context of their regular lives—e.g. enjoying family, socializing with friends, doing productive work, creating art, expressing themselves, having healthy relationships and being a part of the community.
  • Challenge yourself to go beyond superficial symbols and stereotypical identifiers to see how else you can contextualize photo subjects in a more realistic, nuanced way.
  • Check your own racial and cultural bias filters. Try to choose stock photos that reflect the subject’s own authentic context and background, not yours (particularly if you’re White) or your audience’s.
  • Push back on design directives that limit diversity or exclude people from underrepresented groups. Advocate for respectful, authentically diverse representation across a wide variety of groups whenever possible.
  • Create demand! Remember: stock photography is a supply and demand business sensitive not only to purchases but search intelligence, too. Using diversity-oriented keywords in our searches and consciously buying more inclusive photos sends a strong message to photographers and stock companies to provide more and better quality options.

While we’re already seeing some stock photo trends in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go. Small actions over time pave the way for larger social shifts. Nobody will do this job perfectly, but we can do our best and be open to evolving our awareness.

May every stock photo you use be a step toward progress!

Photo of George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte in May 2020 by Clay Banks via Unsplash

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