Are Stock Images a Problem?

free website imagesI have a love-hate relationship with stock images. On the one hand, I know they don’t look authentic. I used to be very adamant about not using stock images on this site, and you will certainly never see a stock image pretending to be our team or any member of our team.

On the other hand, we often find when working with clients’ authentic photos that it’s very hard to make them look good. The lighting tends to be poor, the resolution is often wrong for the space where we need to use it, and… well, they’re authentic, right? Real life is rarely as photogenic as a truly well done photo shoot.

So we used stock photos for clients’ sites and held off for our own. But then we had a problem. We had used a photo clearly labeled for re-use under creative commons licensing, and years later we got a letter from a lawyer saying we had used it without paying. Did the photographer later sell it to a stock photo site, or did we get it from a source that lied about its provenance? I don’t know. But it did make us turn away from using shared photos. Now, we take the pictures ourselves or use stock images.

An article in Wired magazine is making me rethink that decision.

Author Clive Thompson says, in “Stock Photos Are Dumb. We Can Help,” that stock photos encourage stereotyping and sloppy thinking. “Its intentionally bland images are designed to be usable in many vaguely-defined situations. This produces wretched photography for the same reason Hallmark cards produce wretched poetry.” Thompson says we should all share our photos, and that publishers should encourage this by using shared photos.

I’ve had that article in the back of my mind for a while. I kind of see his point. It doesn’t seem like a strong enough point to make it worth chancing a lawsuit, though.

Then I was collecting photos for a project. The project involves fishing, so I was gathering up stock images of people fishing. I was choosing the images on the basis of the colors, the quality, the composition, the backgrounds, and how well they conveyed the message I was working on, not to mention how they would work with the other elements on the pages they’re designed to grace.

After a couple of hours of that it struck me: the people doing the fishing were all white men.

There is no logical reason that all stock photos of fishing should involve white guys, but as I went back through the options I discovered that, sure enough, all the photos I had been shown for every search I had made over a fairly long time period — all showed white males.

I was only able to find African American fishermen by specifically looking for “African American fishing.” I only found women by specifying. This method also works if you want to find Latino or Asian or Native American people fishing. It is not that there are no pictures showing diversity among people who fish. But you definitely have to work to find it.

I remember when people felt that had to specify that they wanted multicultural images or examples. I thought those days were long past — and that’s true for some kinds of images. Looking for business or medical or education-related photos? You probably would have to make an effort to get group photos with only white guys. I’m not sure why photos labeled as images of businesswomen so often show a feisty female in a suit with her arms crossed, but there are at least plenty to choose from. In these areas, you can also count on seeing different ages and apparent social status.

Step outside the enclaves where people are insistent on diversity, though, and you get a different story.

As Thompson says, there is a tendency for stock photos to go with the most popular, the most neutral-seeming. the most obvious options. Sharing might be one solution, though my experience makes me wary. DeviantArt says this: “The best way to avoid infringing on the rights of another creative person is to use your skill, talent and imagination to create your own completely original work.”

We insist on original content, and would never even consider using, spinning, or in any way grabbing someone else’s words (quoting and discussing, yes). There’s no value to that. No website needs to repeat things that are already on the web to be read. Perhaps the same is true for images. Maybe it’s time we all take our own photos or buy unique photos from local artists.

Thompson says, “Stock photography needs to die,” and I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s something to think about. At the very least, if we think about it, it might keep us from failing to notice the stereotypes and cliches stock photos can lure us into adding to our websites.
Author: Rebecca Haden