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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

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The Fight Against Sexist Stock Photography

I think the peach needs to be shinier," Bustle senior creative director Isla Murray tells Dawn Foster, a staff graphic designer who has been slowly sucking a piece of fruit for the last several minutes. "Should we spray it with water? Or something else? How do we make it look more provocative?"

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Murray and Foster, along with several other editors from the women's lifestyle site, are gathered inside a photo studio at the company's Manhattan offices. The space is covered in props — melons, sprinkle cookies, plastic chili peppers, a fur rug, some sort of phallic purple thing covered in rhinestones that is almost certainly a dildo, piles of underwear, boxes of lip gloss, hot dogs stuffed into buns and slathered with ketchup.

But right now, they need to make the peach sexy. The team lists off some other items that are floating around the office, and a few minutes later, the peach is being smeared with lube. Dawn tries to keep herself from gagging as she resumes her provocative sucking, and her audience tries to stifle their giggles as the lube drips down onto her hand.

After Dawn's done with the peach, she poses for more shots, including ones of her hands undoing her bra and a close-up of her tongue licking some candy. Eventually she makes room for another Bustle staffer to model. This one poses pantless, in granny panties, while holding a bloody tampon, which isn't bloody at all, but has actually just been dipped in sriracha.

Photo: Bustle

Over the last three months, Bustle has all but abandoned standard stock photography sites. Instead of using images from Getty and Shutterstock to art stories on its lifestyle, fashion, and beauty verticals, it's started shooting its own. The decision came after editors agreed that despite the countless options available on big stock sites, it was difficult to find photos for articles that discussed topics like body image, sex, and relationships.

"Our editorial team has been frustrated for a while by the fact that there aren't the kinds of photographs out there in the stock photo world that represent our audience in terms of diversity or tone," Murray explains. "The stock photos don't represent the people reading our articles."

"If you'd try to search for ‘penis' on a stock photography site, you probably couldn't find anything relatable to use," she says. Holding up two eggplants — one that's small and another that's oversized and bulbous, she goes on: "But if we have a piece talking about different penis sizes and we shoot these guys, it does the job, you see?"

"We're basically looking for a way to talk about vaginas and boobs without actually showing vaginas and boobs."

A woman holding a power drill looking confused. A woman on a beach in a skimpy bikini making a suggestive face. A woman sitting, in a wedding dress, on top of a groom, choking him. A woman with a fresh blowout and a face full of makeup doing crunches at the gym while grinning widely, clearly having the time of her life.

"It's pretty amazing how little has changed in that world," Joan C. Williams, a feminist legal scholar at University of California's Hastings School of Law, says of the stock photo industry. "In the 1970s, feminists made critiques about its body imagery and how unrealistic the feminine ideals were. And that was years and years ago."

Frustration over how women in stock photography are portrayed has only been amplified in recent years; we've all seen The Hairpin's now-iconic photo essay Women Laughing Alone with Salad. These kinds of critiques have become commonplace as editors doing photo research for, say, a story about feminism can only find images of women in bad suits climbing ladders. But instead of waiting for stock photography companies to change their editorial policies — which some are indeed starting to do — sites like Bustle are taking matters into their own hands.

"We're basically looking for a way to talk about vaginas and boobs without actually showing vaginas and boobs," says Julie Alvin, Bustle's deputy editor. "We want our photos to be subtle. And the images you find on stock photography sites are really cheesy, and only have tall, skinny, white women."

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet/Refinery29

For the last two years, Refinery29 has been shooting its own stock photography for the very same reasons. Similar to Bustle, Refinery29 editors gather for quarterly meetings to discuss which areas of coverage are most difficult to illustrate through stock images.

"We were having a hard time finding the right images, particularly in the sex category, that were authentic, racially diverse, and didn't feel horribly cheesy," says Piera Gelardi, Refinery29's executive creative director and founding partner. "We call our collection the ‘anti-stock archive.'"

The stock photo industry has been around since the 1920s, when a screenwriter from New Jersey named H. Armstrong Roberts first started his agency, RobertStock. Photos submitted to Robertstock (and other major stock agencies of the era like Pictorial Parade, Black Star Publishing Company, and Frederick Lewis Stock Photos) were usually outtakes — the extra images photographers hadn't submitted to companies or publications that hired them for assignments. Typical stock photo clients back then used the images for magazines, books, calendars, and greeting cards, according to analyst Jim Pickerell.

"Who can forget those images of a woman climbing a ladder in a suit and high heels to show she's successful?"

The industry saw a significant surge following the 1976 Copyright Act, when photographers were granted full ownership of their photos; the law had previously allowed their employers to own their work. Suddenly, stock photography no longer consisted of outtakes, but instead of portraits and editorial images that photographers were allowed to license multiple rights to. Agencies began to pop up left and right.

By the ‘90s, there were so many players in the market that many companies merged or closed completely. Today's biggest players — Shutterstock and Getty — rose to prominence after joining forces with competitors. Getty, which was founded in 1995, merged with rival PhotoDisc in 1997, while Shutterstock purchased Bigstock in 2009.

Stock photography has always leaned heavily on stereotypes, especially when it comes to women, says Ben Barry, a professor at Ryerson University's School of Fashion who teaches a course entitled "Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion." One factor Barry points to is that, historically, clients purchasing images for corporations and ad agencies were "predominantly male."

"It's not that these photographers or creative directors were bad and wanted to create unfair, sexist imagery," says Barry. "They were just reproducing what they imagined people wanted to see."

"Prior to the last 10 years, you'd traditionally find plenty of gender clichés and stereotypical images in stock photography," admits Pamela Grossman, Getty's director of visual trends. "Who can forget those images of a woman climbing a ladder in a suit and high heels to show she's successful?" (Not us, clearly.)

Photo: Shutterstock

Even as attitudes towards and representations of women have evolved over the last several decades, stock photography has all but stayed the same.

"What you find is that you can still say through images stuff that would be taboo to say in words," says Williams. "It would be bad taste to say that feminists are unattractive women who are power-hungry, but that message is loud and clear in plenty of images."

Lee Chapman, a researcher at Ryerson who wrote her dissertation on the lack of female presence in STEM stock images, says the sexist imagery that's rampant in stock photography is still around because images that employ it "are the safest to sell."

"Yes, plenty of these images are corny, but they are also easy to interpret, so they will most definitely sell," says Chapman. "These stock companies want images that are versatile and can be downloaded for different reasons. That detracts from creativity and variety, especially when advertisers and different corporations rely on this notion of safety and tradition, opting for images that have been used all along."

"Yes, plenty of these images are corny, but they are also easy to interpret, so they will most definitely sell."

This has a real impact on readers. As Slate noted last year, "Sadly, many people often just scan headlines and look at pictures, so what kind of imagery we use counts for a lot. If feminism is frequently illustrated as being anti-male (that woman in lingerie is wearing boxing gloves to punch out a man), then people start to buy that negative stereotype."

"In my research, I found that men in stock photos play the lead role, often directing the women in the images," adds Chapman. "A theme like that is not outright offensive; it's more subtle. And subtle messages can really affect the subconscious and develop a poor understanding of gender roles. It goes by unnoticed, but registers somewhere and is developed as a ‘normal' idea without you, as a passive consumer, even noticing."

The three most searched terms on Getty Images these days are "women," "business," and "family," so it was only a matter of time before the stock photo world had no choice but to reassess what it was offering. Experts also attribute this shift to social media — and with it, the increased ability for people to accurately represent themselves through photos — which has introduced entirely new ways for people to be portrayed.

"People today get their images through Facebook and Instagram, and we're able to see that people don't live their lives in this ‘perfect' world that's been made on the set of a stock photography shoot," says Chapman. Adds Barry, "We're seeing men represent themselves the way they want, and even the entire category of plus-size women change how people see them. It challenges previous assumptions that stock photography would always remain like this."

Three years ago, Karen Beard, a former photographer living in the Bay Area, started SheStock, a stock photography site aimed at offering authentic images of women. Not only that, but the site hosts photography shot exclusively by women.

Photo: Lean In/Getty Images

Beard calls photography a "sexist industry in general," and says that SheStock's main goal is to portray women in dominant roles: "The language used in stock photography over the last 40 years was created by white men. It's amazing because then you'll hear about marketers complaining that, statistically, they don't feel like they are reaching women."

SheStock isn't the only company seeking change. In 2014, Getty Images teamed up with Sheryl Sandberg's nonprofit Lean In to release a collection of 2,500 photos (a number which has since doubled) that better represents women and families. The photos show working women wearing "normal" clothes — not just power suits — and mothers multi-tasking without looking frazzled.

"When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we're trying to overcome, and you can't be what you can't see," Sandberg told the New York Times last year.

"The language used in stock photography over the last 40 years was created by white men."

Of the collection, Fast Company wrote, "Click through the photos, and you'll see a more diverse sampling of women — all of whom look elegant and focused. And among the women surfing and the young girls skateboarding, there are also tattooed dads helping kids get ready for school, and men collaborating with women in studios, because part of the Lean In credo is that men ought to embrace female empowerment as well."

But Getty got feedback that the photos were too expensive, says Grossman, so a few weeks ago, Lean In released a more affordable collection through iStock, Getty's crowd-sourced, royalty-free service.

"With the new iStock collection, it really feels like we're expanding the movement," she says. "We want everybody to choose these types of images, regardless of how big their budgets might be."

Grossman admits some of the images in Getty's regular collection are a far cry from how women want to be represented. Staff at Getty have considered removing some of the more offensive photos from its archives, but Grossman says the company "can't be the imagery police, because while our obligation is to be responsible and encourage people to think more broadly, customers come to us for all different types of image requests and we need to provide a variety of content." Instead, Getty is currently playing with its algorithm so that its most recent images, which Grossman calls "powerful alternatives to gender clichés," appear at the top of search results. To some, though, burying sexist images is not enough.

"It really should be a priority: they should be going through their archives and making cognizant decisions of which photos they should get rid of," says Chapman. "These agencies should be playing a critical role in promoting a different understanding," echoes Barry.

Photo: Lean In/Getty Images

While Getty's Lean In collection is a good place to start, many feel it's not an entirely viable alternative. Critics note that images mostly depict the upper-middle class and that women of color and LGBT subjects are largely underrepresented.

"The Lean In Collection literally chooses surface over substance," Flavorwire asserted when it debuted.

A piece on The Toast also dug into the collection: "The stock woman smiles introspectively while working at startups, stands inspirationally in front of sunbeams, has a meaningful relationship with MAC products, crosses her arms confidently in front of her, and challenges herself physically ... Like all stock photography, the ‘Lean In Collection' reproduces generic ideals packaged for easy reproduction. But Lean In is not an ideology — it's a brand that sells a message of ‘overcoming internal obstacles' in order to ‘acquire power.' And the stock women of Lean In are neatly assembled into the brand's pre-existing narrative: Empowerment is visible, tangible, and easily illustrated in a single photographic frame."

"They should be taking pictures of real women, people that aren't models. Stop trying to make everything look so ideal, and just take photos of life!"

Chapman agrees that stock photography should stop looking so staged. "They should be taking pictures of real women, people that aren't models," she posits. "Stop trying to make everything look so ideal, and just take photos of life!"

This is an approach Shutterstock, where many of stock photography's most notorious images live, is trying to take. Keren Sachs, Shutterstock's director of content development, says discussions of stereotypes and sexism constantly come up at Shutterstock, but like Getty, Shutterstock cannot simply remove the images. Instead, part of Sachs' job is to travel around the globe and speak to contributors in more than 150 countries to encourage them to shoot more diverse, inclusive images.

"The main point we focus on is telling contributors to shoot the world around them," Sachs says. "There's this notion in stock photography that they need to create a fantasy world, one with a fake office and a fake family. That's where the inaccurate portrayals of women come from. But if they would just photograph their world, their family, culture, town, that type of local content would be a much better way for them to shoot authentically."

It's clear that will take some time for stock photography to get to where it needs to be. Until then, Bustle's Murray says she wouldn't be surprised if more companies follow Bustle and Refinery29's lead and start to produce photos of their own. Because as silly as a photo of a girl sucking a shiny peach is, it's certainly better than some of the alternatives.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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