Olivia Parker
May 21, 2019

Can better stock pictures eliminate stereotypes?

Stock picture houses and media companies are making more efforts to use photos that represent a broader spectrum of people, particularly women, than they have in the past. But while this could have big implications for advertising, there may still be a lot of work to do.

Images from Getty's #ShowUs collection (Credits, clockwise from top left: Natalie McComas / Shiho Fukada / Chen Shiyuan / Jasmine Lin / #ShowUs / Getty Images)
Images from Getty's #ShowUs collection (Credits, clockwise from top left: Natalie McComas / Shiho Fukada / Chen Shiyuan / Jasmine Lin / #ShowUs / Getty Images)

A scroll through Getty’s Project #ShowUs, a collection of over 5,000 stock images launched with Dove in March to help promote diversity, is an uncommon experience. The pictures were taken by members of the female photographer group Girlgaze and depict female models they chose themselves, typically their own family members or friends. The models, who come from 39 different countries and were asked to pick the search terms that would help Getty customers to find their pictures, are portrayed in off-guard, un-posed moments, carrying out normal actions like serving up lunch or putting on makeup, or half-way through a sporting activity.

It’s hard to determine why the pictures are so arresting to look at together, until you realise that the experience provides the same kind of pleasure you get from sitting in a coffee shop people-watching. The joy of that activity comes from observing how physically different people are and seeing how their personalities come across in what they’re doing or wearing or how they’re acting. Looking at the #ShowUs photos is powerful because it’s so rare to see this true-to-life presentation of humanity laid out in 2D form, particularly on a stock picture website.

An image in the #ShowUs collection by Getty (Credit: Deby Suchaeri / #ShowUs / Getty Images)

“I sat there and kind of let it wash over me, and I was like ‘wow’”, says Petra O’Halloran, a Sydney-based senior creative researcher at Getty Images. “If had seen this kind of imagery in advertising growing up I think I’d be a very different person to what I am today in terms of my confidence, knowing what I am able to know, the ability that I have to achieve the things I want to achieve. Because I didn’t see that growing up, because I was part of that generation that was fed all those stereotypes. It was overwhelming.”

By “those stereotypes”, she means the kind of non-diverse images that, despite recent efforts, can still be found on many stock picture websites and, by extension, in advertising. Models are typically slim, white and contentedly fitting into prescribed gender roles. “Stock imagery is used in all advertising across all forms,” says O’Halloran. “Not everyone wants to admit it all the time that they use stock imagery but it is used, and therefore it is quite influential.”

A 2019 AdReaction study by Kantar showed that 63% of APAC consumers think advertising reinforces stereotypes, even though 83% of marketers think they are avoiding harmful cliches in ads. Representations of gender are in particular need of an overhaul. According to the Dove Impact of Beauty Stereotypes Quant Study 2019, which surveyed over 9,000 women in 11 countries including China, Japan and India, 70% of women said they still didn’t feel represented in the images they saw everyday. Two-thirds felt they saw limited body shapes and sizes and 64% said characteristics like scars, freckles and skin conditions were not well-represented enough.

A vacuum of people who look like you in a medium as widely seen as advertising can have a powerful impact on identity, O’Halloran continues. “Your perception of something becomes your reality. So if you see skinny white women with blonde hair, or whoever, on TV, and that’s not who you are, then that can be kind of confusing, especially I guess for a young girl growing up and not seeing themselves represented authentically. It can definitely throw a spanner in the works, mentally.”

Natalie McComas / #ShowUs / Getty Images

Dove found that 67% of women wanted brands to step up and start taking responsibility for the stock images they use — and Getty has recently started to see a response reflected in the search terms used by brands to find images. Searches for "real people" were up 192% around the world by the time Getty released #ShowUs, for example, with searches for "strong women" up 187%.

On a more granular level in Asia, searches on Getty seem to suggest a general desire among clients to portray women at work, or as a confident solo person outside a family unit, some improvement on the stereotype of a woman as part of a couple or family or only occupying the domestic space. Searches for “business woman” have increased by 69% in Hong Kong and 608% in Indonesia, for instance, Getty says, and “Asian business women” searches have increased over 2.5 times compared to 2017 in Singapore. “Business woman Asia” is up 5400% in Taiwan, which has also seen a huge surge in searches for “woman power” (+3650%) and “confidence woman” (+2967%).

While these may not suggest a strong market for images that show women who are more diverse in terms of how they look, as opposed to what they are doing, O’Halloran says terms like “real bodies” and “real beauty” do feed into ‘flagship’ terms like “women empowerment”. “Empowerment — feeling powerful and feeling confident — whether we want to admit it or not, does relate to how we feel physically and how we look and how we present ourselves.”

Getty says it is still too early to provide download figures from the #ShowUs collection, but shares that publications like Harper's Bazaar, Stylist, O Magazine, Elle and Marie Claire have all used images already. O'Halloran has seen both a need and a want for the pictures from clients. “In my position I see brand guidelines come across my desk all the time and creative briefs from agencies and corporates and all kinds, and I've noticed this definite change in what they're asking for and what they want to represent.”

Getty aren’t the only ones exploring how to introduce a more accurate reflection of women in stock pictures. Around International Women’s Day weekend earlier this year BBH Singapore contributed a collection of 202 photos called “See Different” to Unsplash, a free stock picture collection founded in 2013.

Four images from BBH's 'See Different' collection for Unsplash

Seeking to “change the stereotypical perception of the Asian woman and show her true diversity”, the See Different images again show women who look completely different to each other and appear to reflect “real life” much more accurately. While a few women appear in more common stock picture “model” poses, others look like their image was captured while photographers were on the hoof, shooting women they saw during travels in different parts of Asia. Since the launch, See Different has had close to 13 million views and 30,000 downloads, BBH reports, suggesting a healthy appetite for the images.

March also saw the launch of “The Gender Spectrum Collection” by Vice Media’s Broadly, a platform that aims to feature the stories of mis-represented or under-represented groups including women, gender non-conforming people and LGBT individuals. The collection came about when Broadly’s editors noticed a lack of quality stock imagery featuring trans and non-binary models — or at least pictures that featured models going "beyond the cliches of putting on makeup and holding trans flags" — and decided to do something about it.

One image in the Broadly collection, showing a genderqueer person using a makeup remover wipe

“Stock images are meant to easily translate a headline or message into something visual, so they are created to immediately click in the reader’s mind,” says Sarah Burke, an editor at Broadly. “Because of that, I think that stock imagery is especially prone to perpetuating existing stereotypes rather than challenging them. Realistically, though, they can do the job while also being nuanced and working to expand representation.”

Burke and her team asked editors across all of Vice’s platforms what images they’d like to have for stories about trans and non-binary subjects, and consulted with the director of transgender media and representation for GLAAD, an American NGO which monitors the representation of bisexual and transgender people in the media. The photographs were shot by the trans photographer Zackary Drucker. While budget and capacity meant they could produce a collection of just under 200 images, much smaller than Getty’s #ShowUs project, Burke believes that even this “small contribution” is making a difference.

“I think the personal impact is best articulated by the models themselves in the behind-the-scenes video we made during the shoot [see below]. From a journalistic standpoint, I believe that limiting visual representations of trans and non-binary people in media also limits the range of stories in which we imagine those subjects. So, offering a wider range of imagery should, hopefully, encourage richer representations of trans and non-binary personhood within media, both visually and editorially.” One strong sign of progress is that many of the images are being used on stories that feature topics other than trans and non-binary identity, Burke says.

While Broadly’s collection can be used for free by editors around the world, Burke has no commercial plans to sell the pictures outside Vice, primarily to ensure the models’ faces aren’t used to sell products they may be uncomfortable with, she says. She also has no plans, as yet, to expand the collection to other communities beyond the trans and non-binary world.

Such measures to develop better pictures are a start, but it feels like stock picture providers still have some improvements to make. Groups of images such as Project #ShowUs or Shutterstock’s curated diversity collections are just that, collections, while the rest of the sites’ images, which may still perpetuate stereotypes, remain. Shutterstock only included the first APAC country, Australia, in its annual Diversity Report last year, and the company’s suggestion that it “carefully considers which markets are interested in this type of content” suggests it feels that some markets are still not "interested".

The company does, however, say it is constantly working with its contributor network to increase representation, which includes encouraging diversity both behind and in front of the camera lens. Shutterstock has launched a ‘contributor experience app’ in 21 languages, for example, explains Kristen Sanger, senior director of Contributor Marketing, as well as a mobile app that encourages anyone to easily sign up and contribute, “even if they do not own expensive camera gear.”

As O’Halloran points out, reaching equality doesn’t mean getting rid of the “thin white female”, since she clearly still exists — but she does accept that #ShowUs is just one step in making diversity in stock pictures the norm. “It takes a few brave leaders to pave the way in this area but I do think that it is something that will be adopted and eventually become the norm and that's what we want — we want to normalise.”

“It doesn’t end here. This is something we need to keep working at, to stamp out those stereotypes for good.”


Campaign's Women Leading Change

We'll be discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June 2019. Register your interest and find out more at www.womenleadingchange.asia.

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