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Changing Society, One Terrible Stock Photo at a Time

The images plastering the web can subconsciously tell us what to think.

by Meghan Neal
Feb 11 2014, 1:56pm
Here's a stock photo portrayal of a "career woman." Image: Shutterstock 

About a month after TIME magazine published its controversial cover photo showing a stock image representing Hillary Clinton's high-heeled shoe trampling a tiny man, Sheryl Sandberg's nonprofit Lean In announced it's teamed up with Getty Images to provide a collection of stock photos for the press that, you know, aren't sexist.

Sandberg of course is focused on changing the stubborn gender stereotypes that make it difficult for women in the workplace to rise to leadership positions. The theory being, as advertising exec Cindy Gallop told the New York Times, "One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it."

On the web, that often means the stock photos that color news stories. The terrible, hilarious, cheesy, dated, why-the-hell-does-this-even-exist stock photos whose ridiculousness has been well-chronicled in the annals of internet memes.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words—the idiom at the heart of Sandberg's project—I'll let the stock photos do the talking. Here are some of the gems that turned up in a Shutterstock search for "career women." (Hat tip to New York magazine for digging these up.)

Images: Shutterstock

Compare that to some of the options in the Lean In Getty collection:

Screenshot from Getty Images

Granted, stock photos of men or just about anything you can search for can unearth equally unrealistic buffoonery. But considering that, according to the Times, the three most searched terms in Getty's database are "women," "business," and "family," it's worth thinking about what kind of imagery we're sprinkling the timely conversation about gender equality in the workplace with.

Obviously visual marketing, visual storytelling, social image, and branding have the power to influence and manipulate a message. In the news media too: Many of history's most significant events are punctuated by and shaped by famous photographs that were able to get a message through to the public when words couldn't.

That's arguably more true than ever in today's photo-obsessed media climate. The internet and social media are more than ever the medium through which we get information, and the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and news outlets' homepages are increasingly emphasizing visual content over text.

Not only can associating a topic with a certain visual subconsciously paint a portrait of how you think about said topic, but the images news sites and blogs select to sell their articles can determine whether someone even reads the story, by influencing whether an article gets shared and sucked into the viral web, or disappears into the ether.

And so people are starting to pay attention to the images plastering the content plastering the web. There's something of a stock photo activism trend emerging. A new website, PhotoAbility, recently launched offering stock photos of models with disabilities to change how society views and welcomes people with disabilities. And it's the reason artist Trevor Paglen just put photos he took of the elusive NSA headquarters online in the public domain.

Paglen explained to the Atlantic that he wanted to “expand the visual vocabulary we use to ‘see’ the U.S. intelligence community.” Journalists trying to make the zillionth government surveillance story sexy have slim pickings for illustrating the important news. Yet these images influence how a story is received. A photo of the NSA HQ looking like this:

Image: Wikimedia

isn't going to pack the same punch as an article portraying the NSA like this:

Image: Wikimedia (courtesy of Trevor Paglen)

or, this:

Image: Office of the DNI/Twitter

So yes, stock photos that accompany news stories have some power to shape social attitudes. But that said, not nearly as much as the ubiquitous advertisements still portraying women as domestic sexpots to sell products, to say nothing of the two-dimensional female characters Hollywood can't seem to shake.

The Lean In Getty collection, for its part, is meant to be a realistic snapshot of life: women and men together, doing normal, everyday things. Which after all is what stock photography is meant to reflect.