Two women recline in a living room ripped straight from a Pottery Barn catalog. Dressed in J.Crew's finest, they share a vaporizer, inhaling cannabis in comfort and class. There's at least 30 years between them; their closeness suggests they could be mother and daughter.
If this seems unusual, it's because it is—at least according to how marijuana users are portrayed in the media. "Sexy girls in skimpy outfits is the norm," says Ophelia Chong, a Los Angeles–based photography professor.
The stoner–slacker tropes commonly associated with cannabis users made Chong angry. It was personal for her—her sister has an autoimmune disease, and Chong had encouraged her to use cannabis for pain relief. Her sister was hesitant, and Chong wanted to show her that it was OK, that everyone did this now. But when Chong Googled "cannabis" on stock image sites, all she saw were stereotypes and pictures of the plant. "I didn't want to show them to her," she says. "It was insulting. Would she stop, because she'd think this is how people [would see her]?"
That's why Chong created StockPot Images, a sort of "Getty Images for pot." Her images show a different side of smokers: They range from millennial women vaping with wine, to families cooking with cannabis, to an incredible series critiquing the overmedication of army veterans with PTSD.
As more states legalize, Chong argues, health care organizations will begin to promote cannabis, and companies like Kaiser Permanente will need images of people in real-life settings—not scantily clad teenagers seductively blowing smoke out of lipsticked mouths.
"I love seeing businesswomen and professionals using cannabis, because it shines the truth on cannabis," says Heather Hoffman, CEO of Pura Vida, a company that sells cannabis superfoods (Higher Power protein bars, Gramola). Until now, Hoffman's produced all her own brand photography because she couldn't find any that portrayed cannabis in a health-conscious light. But that will be harder to do as she scales, and she's keen for more companies to offer representational photos. "To me, cannabis is a medicinal herb," she says. "It's important we start treating and representing it [as such]."
But it will take time. Recently, a Walgreens mailer advertised the benefits of medical marijuana with an explanatory guide, illustrated with close-ups of the plant—"an unhelpful portrayal," Chong says, since it's not totally intuitive what you're supposed to do with the plant once it's in your hands, if that's even the way you're ingesting cannabis at all. But they're the first images you'll see on regular stock photo sites. To change public perception, you have to create new content—and get it out there. Chong's working hard at building up her library; she currently has 155 photographers and around 12,000 images. There's one proviso: no pictures of women being sexualized. "We're such a nascent industry we have a chance to set a precedent," she says. "No girls in thongs!"
But change won't happen overnight. "There will always be those who exploit sex to generate sales," says Rob Hunt, a partner at the cannabis investment firm Tuatara Capital. "The cannabis industry is as susceptible to this temptation as any other vertical." Websites like Ganga Girls (tagline: "Your boyfriend's favorite website") and the Nug ("Weed, women & other important stuff") aren't going anywhere. However, he sees the future of the cannabis industry as far more inclusive. "The cannabis industry has proven itself to have no glass ceiling; there are more female executives than almost any other industry," he says, arguing that this helps reduce female objectification.
Sexual representation isn't the only thing Chong's looking at—she wants to make sure all races and cultures are represented. "We have affirmative images of African Americans and Latinos," she says. "And we have Asian [people]." As an Asian American, Chong is particularly proud of representing that population. "I have a 90-year-old Asian grandma tending a cannabis garden!" she says.
To keep her images authentic, Chong insists that all models be cannabis users so that nothing is posed. Her photographers are global, including sets and models from South Africa, Canada, and Eastern Europe—and many are her former students. "I came to them and said, 'Shoot for me and you can write off your weed,'" she laughed. They bring a freshness to her image library—think bearded hipster bros smoking on a hike, and a cannabis and champagne wedding toast.
But my favorites would have to be what comes up when you search "cat." A tabby cat paws uncertainly at a cannabis plant; another plays with a dinner plate full of weed; a third awkwardly poses next to a red heart-shaped box full of cannabis that reads, "Happy Purrrfect Valentine's Day with Cannabis." It's incongruous, unexpected, and totally original. You've never seen weed quite like this...and that's exactly what Chong's going for. Her favorite photograph is the cannabis "breakfast of champions" shot: a plate of bacon and eggs molded into a cheery cannabis leaf. "It makes me smile," she says.
Chong's not the only person trying to change the mainstream representation of cannabis. Last year the Drug Policy Alliance released 64 free-to-use photos for the media showing cannabis use in a modern setting. Here, you have photos of seniors smoking during dinner, a man vaping as he codes, and a girl lighting up at a pre-yoga session.
"We've had about 23,000 downloads for the stock photos," says Sharda Sekaran, director of communications at Drug Policy Alliance. Sekaran points out that there's no "typical" marijuana user, as people consume marijuana for a variety of reasons. "It's time the images used to depict marijuana use become a more accurate reflection of that reality," she says. Sekaran highlighted Chong's work as an example of how businesses are becoming friendlier to marijuana users—StockPot's success shows there's a demand for new visuals representing cannabis users. Rob Hunt, from Tuatara Capital, calls these stock photos a "terrific start," but he says that the onus remains on the media. "The majority of what is printed or portrayed still conforms to outdated cliches," he says.
Chong says that to a certain extent we'll never get rid of the weed leaf symbol. "It's iconic, like McDonald's golden arches," she says. But she's OK with that, as long as it's not the only way cannabis is viewed. Her goal is to grow StockPot into a service used by health care companies and businesses—people looking for more variety and depth than what's currently available. In keeping with her philosophy, she pays her photographer's 50 percent higher rates than Getty. As a business model, it's not the best, but making money isn't her main objective here.
"The mission is to change the face of cannabis," she says. "An image is a weapon of change. I want everyone to benefit."