Stock Photos Alter Our Reality

I build a lot of websites and work on many more daily.  It’s become standard practice for myself and for many other designers to create websites that use stock photos.  We use them in blogs, in sliders, and as backgrounds.  They give users an orientation and a feel for what they’re reading.  But are they hurting us? 

Clive Thompson, a frequent writer for Wired Magazine, wrote an article in May arguing that bland ‘one size fits all’ stock photos are, in fact, bad.  By offering the broadest possible representation for any given subject, the stock industry sells more images and profits.  But they also perpetuate our cliches and bias.

An excellent example occurred when journalist Jessica Bennett searched for stock images using the keyword “Arab”.  Not surprisingly, a lot of angry men in turbans resulted.  We have a much wider understanding of what  an Arab person’s life is day-to-day, yet the most popular portrayal in our media (as indicated by said stock photos) is negative.

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What happens when this disseminates into our news and daily culture?  Personally, I don’t think anything good.  Consider the fight women face every day.  Is the skirt tight enough?  Heels modest enough, but high enough to look ‘sexy’?  What is sexy?  Is makeup necessary?  Do I look like a model?  If we’re using the broadest and most cliche images of women in the workplace, our own mental images, and those of our children, subconsciously skew.

How do we change this?  While Jessica Bennett is starting her own movement, we can do something, too.  All it takes is one conscious person at a time.  A few submissions to free stock sites like MorgueFile.  And maybe a few start up movements.

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