“Brands are finally being called out for their use of classic, overused tropes,” Paul Friesen, Director of Content at 500px, tells us. “Female strength and empowerment once meant seeing a woman in boxing gloves, and career-driven women were once represented as multitasking octo-woman with multiple arms. I’m glad to see that this is no longer acceptable in mainstream marketing.”
We started to see this particular change in around 2014, when Getty introduced the Lean Incollection in collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit—a concerted effort to change the way women were seen in ads and the media. Then, two years ago, The New York Times published “From Sex Object to Gritty Woman” by Claire Cain Miller, an article tracing the evolution of women in stock photography.
In 2007, Getty’s bestselling photo for the search term “woman” featured a nude woman on a bed. By 2017, all that was over and done with. The bestselling photo had become an image of a woman exploring the rugged landscape of Banff National Park.
Still, there was more work to be done.
In 2017, women seen in advertising became active and embraced their strength, but they were still mostly white, thin, and non-disabled. Two years have passed, and seven in 10 women still don’t feel that they’re represented in the media.
Last year, Claire Cain Miller from The New York Times tackled another elephant in the room: representation of non-binary and transgender people in stock photography just wasn’t up to par. Sure, there were plenty of photos of the transgender pride symbol, but few showed faces. When they did, we rarely saw trans people going about their everyday lives; usually, they just stood in front of a blank wall. Where were the pictures of trans people working, pursuing their passions, spending time with loved ones?
Diverse representation is good, but it’s not enough by itself. It also has to be a fair and accurate representation. Images that portray minorities shouldn’t focus solely on the fact that they’re minorities; instead, we should see them in the same authentic, real-life situations we see cis white people in. Great photos are multi-dimensional, just like the people they represent.
It’s easy to laugh off outdated, sexist stock photos because we know now that they’re ridiculous—and some viral blog posts have done just that. But we should also remember that they were once consumed in earnest.
There’s no such thing as an inconsequential commercial photograph. These images carry weight, and they have serious implications for real people. For decades, people of color in stock photography were mostly portrayed as domestic servants. That didn’t change until the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement took root.
We know that images influence the way we see and understand people outside our own communities, but research also tells us that the media has a direct effect on the way we see ourselves. One 2012 study revealed that among 400 children, white boys were the only group who didn’t experience a drop in self-esteem after watching television. There’s no place for harmful stereotypes on TV, and there’s no place for them in stock photography either.