A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words: How Stock Photography Shapes Unconscious Bias

A picture is worth a thousand words--so why do we not think more carefully about stock photography?

By: Eline Jeanné & Anna Lekas Miller

Over the past few weeks, news outlets has been scrambling to stay on top of the rapidly-evolving COVID-19 pandemic, keeping the public informed with both news updates and public health information around the world. 

But, in their effort to stay on top of the story, many news outlets have been inadvertently pushing the narrative that the coronavirus is a “Chinese virus” with out-of-context images of Asian people wearing face masks or images of Chinatown alongside articles that do not mention Chinatown. It is dangerous misstep, that could further stigmatise a community already experiencing an uptick in hateful incidents.

“It might not be the intention of these media outlets to offend, but current image choices have so far proven to how quickly damaging narratives can appear when visual content is at the forefront of the story,” the visual platform EyeEm observes in a recent article, which promotes a series of images more suitable to illustrating stories about the novel coronavirus. 

It speaks to a larger issue within stock photography—a crucial, but often overlooked accompaniment to the news articles that we consume on a daily basis. A picture is worth a thousand words, and in a world of constant media consumption—whether it is advertisements in a newspaper, influencers on social media or updates on a rapidly evolving news story, these pictures have the ability to influence a reader before they have read a single word.

Because of this, it is crucial for anyone—whether they are journalists, influencers or other content creators—to ensure that the photography that accompanies their work is as representative and inclusive as the work they are creating, and does not advance any harmful stereotypes.

However, sometimes this is easier said than done. 

“A lot of commercial stock photography out there is corny, cheesy, stale and racially one sided (nothing but white people),” Karen Okonkwo, the founder of TONL, a stock photography agency that focuses on providing beautiful, and diverse photos of people of color, told Media Diversity Institute over email.

“This lack of reality forces journalists and content creators to share stories that put white culture at the forefront when that may not be the best image to reflect the story being told.” 

Okonkwo first had the idea for TONL when she noticed the lack of racial diversity in stock photography when she was looking for images of sorority sisters for a blog she was writing. After pouring through dozens of websites, and only finding white women—which did not reflect her reality—she realized the enormous need for more inclusive photography.

But it was the media’s coverage of Phillando Castile and Alton Sterling’s murders that convinced her to team up with co-founder Joshua Kissi to create the agency.

“The media were portraying them (Castille and Sterling) like villains instead of the amazing, loving, black men that they were,” Okonkwo continues, noting that these kinds of one dimensional portrayals lead to marginalization, and creating conscious or unconscious bias against marginalized groups. 

“We wanted to take back the stories being told of our community and instead display them in a positive light through our images and narrative section.” 

The Centre for Media Monitoring has been keeping track of the impact of this kind of misrepresentation or lack of representation. In a recent report, titled The State of Media Reporting on Islam & Muslims, the researchers examine how many articles about British Muslim communities show women wearing black abayas, pushing the narrative that this is how all Muslim women dress. While it is one type of traditional attire, it reduces the diversity of the Muslim community to a single image pushing the idea that Muslim women are invisible, mysterious or shrouded from public view.

“Islamophobia affects all Muslims (as well as people of other faiths such as Sikhs) who wear a multitude of clothing and head coverings,” notes the report. “ The overuse of images of Muslim women in black abayas fails to recognize and represent the diversity of British Muslims.” 

So why are journalists and editors still making ill-informed decision when it comes to news and media images? It seems that oftentimes, they are unaware of their bias and the affect this can have on communities. Through Media Diversity Institute’s Get The Trolls Out! project, the European Network on Religion and Beliefs submitted two separate complaints to news agencies about their incorrect usage of images related to Muslim women. When they were contacted on this matter, they changed the image immediately, explaining that they were not aware of this issue and were open to have a discussion about it. 

It is clearly time that we have that discussion. Whether it is eliminating photography that pushes damaging misinformation and stereotypes such as the images associating Asian communities with the spread of coronavirus, or promoting agencies that visualise the rich diversity of the world around us, it is crucial that we select images with care and make sure that they do not push harmful representations—consciously, or unconsciously.