A young marketer found herself in the all-too-familiar struggle of finding a suitable, “not stocky” stock photo for an article she was about to schedule.
She clicked through page after page, losing patience and hope with every scroll.
Her eyes grew heavy with fatigue -- and then it appeared.
Her mouth dropped. It went dry.
No, it wasn’t the elusive, perfect stock photo she so desperately sought.
It was this:
What the --?
Friends, that young marketer was me (surprise!), and I learned a very important lesson that day: the only thing harder than finding a quality stock photo is finding a quality, realistic stock photo of an under-represented group.
Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t get it. What’s she ranting about?”
I’m ranting not because this image is “offensive” per se, but because it is a cliche.
It puts South Asians in a narrow, stereotypical box.
I wasn’t even looking for a photo of a “diverse” group, but this stopped me in my tracks with how absurd it was.
The ornate outfit the man is wearing is probably what many in the U.S. think of when they picture an Indian man -- but it is also something he would likely only don at a wedding or another formal party; not something that would be worn casually to work, just “watching something funny on a laptop.”
It’s the flashy attire people unfamiliar with the culture think is worn 24/7 and perpetuates the one-dimension portrayal of South Asians that is far too prominent in Western media.
Stock photos like this create a ridiculous expectation of what it’s actually like working with under-represented groups and, frankly, promote ignorance and misinformation.
Unfortunately, this is just one example of the lack of quality diverse and inclusive photography available to marketers and brands.
Stock Photo Slim Pickings
This retelling may have been a tad melodramatic, but my shock upon seeing this stock was in no way exaggerated. In fact, here is a snap I sent my friends shortly after:
Note: The vague caption: “Young People watching something funny on laptop.”
The selection of stock photos featuring people is notoriously homogenous (not to mention face-palm-worthy).
Search any general term on the major competitors (i.e. Shutterstock, iStock, etc.) and you will undoubtedly be met with options dominated by young, thin, white, heterosexual men without visible disability.
It’s a problem because not everyone falls into these buckets.
The concept of “representation” may seem like a new-age call-to-action, but it’s rooted in a very simple, human idea: people want and respond to seeing people like them in every situation. It creates a sense of belonging and affirmation.
This is why we use photos of people in our marketing in the first place. They humanize our products and help prospects envision what it’ll be like working with us.
Even more so than our words, photos help people recognize themselves as a good (or bad) match for your organization.
However, if you’re relying solely on stock photography to accomplish this, you’re limiting yourself to a very specific group of people.
Your photography is a signal to your audiences that you understand their needs and will help fulfill them -- so it needs to represent!
It’s like if you’re targeting young black women with your products, but only use photos of young white men on your website or if you’re looking to reach people who use wheelchairs, but show individuals without active disabilities.
It makes no sense.
Even if a particular group is not currently your target audience, you should still aim to be inclusive.
It’s very rare that the market for a product or service is defined by these superficial elements.
Even if your selling a B2B marketing tool, the marketing director who may buy from you can be any race, gender, or body type and your imagery should be mindful of this.
And frankly, it’s 2019.
Equality, human rights, diversity, and inclusion are center stage and they are causes people expect the brands they support to embrace.
Just think of the financial and social hot water Victoria’s Secret has gotten into in recent years due to its lack of inclusion.
People want to be able to recognize themselves in the brands and products they buy and in Victoria's Secret's case, this shortcoming has resulted in hundreds of closed stores and ever-diminishing marketshare.
Meet Representation Matters
An increasing number of stock photo resources are tackling this head-on.
Taking its name from the growing social movement, Representation Matters is a new, royalty-free stock photo site that focuses specifically on diversity and inclusion.
The website explains, “Big stock photo sites...offer group photos with the obligatory one or two people of color, but how often do you see a doctor, or dancer, or banker who's plus size or has a disability?”
This lack of inclusion not only makes it more difficult for brands without photography resources to truly represent and resonate with their audiences but, as we’ve seen more and more frequently, it can promote the growing social issue of minorities and smaller groups feeling ostracized.
“The more we see unrealistic, idealized people in advertising and the media, the more it makes us doubt the worth of our own bodies, skin colors, looks, and orientations,” Representation Matters continues.
Representation Matters, though small, offers thousands of high-resolution image that aim to rebalance the standards typically portrayed and reinforced in stock imagery.
The models and actors featured represent different ethnicities, sexual orientation, genders, body types, disabilities, and lifestyles, including:
People with Anxiety Disorders
People with Bipolar Disorder
Body Positive Men
People with Depression
People with Disabilities
Member of the LGBT Community
People with Mental Illness
People of Color (POC)
People with Disabilities
(Just to name a few.)
Photos are available under both free (emails you three free images a month) and paid subscription options, but you can also buy individual images without signing up.
But Representation Matters isn’t the only option out there.
Diverse & Inclusive Stock Photography Resources
There are a growing number of inclusive stock photography resources available to marketers. Keep in mind, these resources are not MORE diverse than the major stock photo competitors, but they will help fill some of gaps that exist there.
Jopwell, the leading “career advancement platform for Black, Latinx, and Native American students and professionals,” has created a free resource focused on images of, you guessed it, images of Black, Latinx/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students in the workplace.
Jopwell has also created a dedicated Intern Edition, featuring images of younger members of the groups in office settings. Personally, i think this is amazing to see. I hope seeing these images in use will further encourage younger minorities to pursue professional careers.
Earlier this year, Vice Media's feminist channel Broadly launched “The Gender Spectrum Collection,” a stock photo library of gender-inclusive images. The over 180 image collection features 15 trans and non-binary models and is all available under a Creative Commons license, free for the public and media professionals to use.
Tonl’s goal is to deliver “culturally diverse stock photos that represent the true world we live in” and features beautiful images of black and brown professionals. Plans and individual purchases are available. You can get started for as little as $25.
Stock photos aside, modern Islamic women are definitely no strangers to misrepresentation in the media. The Muslim Girl collection on Getty Images aims to end that. Images are subject to Getty pricing.
Similar to Tonl, Nappy.co shares a variety of high-resolution images of black and brown professionals, but with the added bonus of being free to use!
Proudly Represent Those You Want to Represent You
As a first-generation American, Indo-Caribbean women, representation wasn’t something I had most of my life -- minus, to a degree, Princess Jasmine (thanks, Disney).
It’s something I didn’t even know I wanted; something I didn’t know I craved in my experience until it slowly started happening -- and it’s been unexpectedly comforting.
Diversity and inclusion in your brand’s stock photos and marketing assets make you welcoming and appealing to a wider audience -- perhaps one you never considered.
Someone who isn't a member of any marginalized group might look at an the photo above and see no problem, but people who are will immediately notice that they are misrepresented -- or entirely absent..
While I discourage the inclusion of diverse faces just for the sake of checking the boxes -- people know an inauthentic attempt when they see it -- representative media is something marketers should always keep in mind.
In this day and age, we can be communicating with people from all walks of life at any given moment in the work day.
They may not look, sound, or live like you do, but you’ll share a common bond over your product. These people may be across the globe or at the desk next to you. Either way, their wants and needs need to have a place in your marketing and it starts with what meets the eye.
Make an effort to be more authentically representative in your marketing and, in turn, perhaps they’ll proudly want to represent you.