Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Pregnant and Headless

Or: Pregnant, Headless, Thin, White and Definitely Middle Class. 
Or: (In the language of Stockphotoland) “Headless Person Holding On to Exposed Pregnant Belly While Wearing Tight Top.” 
Or: In which I investigate the rise of stock photography in online "news" and the made-for-marketing "society" it reflects. 
Or: How Click-Bait Narrows Our Horizons 
Or: My Adventures in Stockphotoland

Intro: A Festival of Torsos

I started thinking about stock photography representations in online news, and of women in particular, a couple of years ago after noticing how many articles about reproductive health issues on the two main commercial news web sites (, owned by APN and, owned by Fairfax) were illustrated by stock images of very pregnant torsos – whether those torsos were relevant to the article or not. Some weeks, it seems like there was a pregnant-torso-worthy story almost every day. Here's a selection:

But of course, it wasn't just the pregnant torsos, with their strange person- and diversity- and reality-erasing quality. A classic of the genre came in 2010 when the NZ Herald ran an article about a study showing women in New Zealand have to wait an average of a month to access abortion services and, not surprisingly, that they were not happy about it. The Herald thought the perfect illustration for this would be a 3D 4D ultrasound image of a 29-week fetus:

Wow! I could issue a stream of curse words here, but a few facts will suffice: There are so few abortions at over 20 weeks, Stats NZ and the Abortion Supervisory Committee don't break down the numbers, most likely for fear of people (doctors, patients etc.) being identifiable. The latest figures I have, under an OIA, are from 2009 for abortions after 25 weeks, and there were 6 (out of a total that year of 17,550, or 0.034%). There were probably no abortions at 29 weeks, so using that to illustrate a story about abortion waiting times was an inspired piece of editorial judgment. A few people, myself included, contacted the Herald to point this out, and to their credit, the illustration was quickly changed ... to a mugshot of former Labour MP (now Rotorua mayor) Steve Chadwick:

Still weird, because Steve's pic had nothing to do with the main point of the story. But there you go. 

Click-Bait: Narrowing the Horizon

As a former commercial news media journo myself, I started to expand my view to pay closer attention to the use of stock photographs to "illustrate" news stories in general, not just stories about reproductive health.  Back in the day, as Adelia Hallett pointed out on a recent episode of RNZ's Mediawatch Extra, photographs were used in the news to tell you something about the news. Sure, magazine-type articles might use some stock pix, but generally if there wasn't a news photograph to go with a news story, there wasn't a photograph. Since news has moved online, however, it has become mandatory for every story to be accompanied by an image, something that's at least partly tablet/ipad app driven. Have a story about a secret meeting of mayors, which obviously you can't photograph because it's secret? Try this:

The stock and file pix are usually pretty easy to spot, but not always. There was one that showed up in my local paper, the APN-owned Bay of Plenty Times in January that I thought was one of the more egregious examples of misleading click-bait (and the Mediawatch crew talk about that in the podcast above because I wrote in to whine about it). Check out " 'Teen heaven' Campsite Irks Police'", at bottom left in the screengrab below of the Herald's homepage (where it also featured):

The story didn't interest me but I clicked because I thought, wow, there's no event or campsite I can think of around Tauranga Moana that would attract that many teenagers in tents. Where is this place and is there a music festival on that I don't know about? 

Silly me, it's Stockphotoland. Which you only find out by clicking and reading the photo credit (though I've noticed a lot of sites don't even bother with the credits!) Natch, I did a reverse image search (using TinEye) to try to find its origin, which turns out to be Oxfordshire, England. The same stock pic has shown up on sites as diverse as Youth For Truth USABig Yellow Storage's Guide to Festival Camping (aha!), MensXP's How to Prepare for a Music Festival and the Guardian. And I still have no idea what the actual 'teen heaven' campsite that 'irked' the police actually looked like (and it's worth reading the article to find out that these same "irked" police didn't even know about it till the reporter told them. They responded by saying they were "concerned" and rolled their eyes). And, in case you're wondering, nothing bad happened at the campsite.

OK, so I realise tents don't matter much, but it's the principle of the thing. What makes Stockphotoland problematic is how much it caters to and reinforces stereotypes. It's a point science blogger Alex Wild makes (and illustrates) nicely in a post about scientists: "Stock agencies," he writes, "are selling society back its own stereotype, and the merry-go-round spins ever onward."

Stock images were born of marketing -- trying to get particular groups of people to buy stuff; or to illustrate company annual reports, brochures, political party propaganda. The images are selected, as scholar Paul Frosh explains it in a paper aptly titled "Inside the Image Factory", "in accordance with the classificatory regimes employed by advertising and marketing discourse to specify meanings and target audiences (most fundamentally class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age)". He goes on to point out that the ethical question raised by this is connected to representational power, in particular "the inability of certain groups to control representation of themselves or even to be represented at all."

Yup. Take doctors (and nurses?) for example: 

While you certainly can't prove just by looking that these are all images of white men, the stereotype being appealed to here is pretty clear. For some more (lack of) variety:

(That last one, titled on Realstockphotos as"Pretty Young Woman Eating an Apple" brings to mind this hilarious collection of "Women Laughing Alone With Salad"). 

I had a chat with a couple of acquaintances who work for APN and Fairfax respectively, who told me that as the price of stock photos has dropped, they've been using more of them -- images from actual news agencies like AP or Thomson Reuters tend to cost more than stock photos. And because the main consumer of stock images is the U.S., much of the imagery is American. There is at least one local stock photo agency, My Chilly Bin, but its pix are, again, more expensive than the preferred American stock. It's a point that was raised on Mediawatch Extra by an anonymous staffer at one of the Big Two who, according to the presenter Colin Peacock, urged Mediawatch to look into "how APN and the Herald use cheap foreign stock pictures...for example, using pictures of American classrooms to illustrate stories on NZ education". (I tried to track down this anon staffer, but no dice. Maybe s/he will comment? I'd love to know more about what goes on inside the sausage factory.)

In the United States, the COO of Facebook and "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg has, with her organisation of the same name, launched a campaign with Getty Images to try to change the portrayal of women and families in particular in stock pix

I asked Mediawomen NZ by email what they thought about this initiative as well as Stockphotoland in general. Claudia Macdonald, a spokeswoman for the group who is the Managing Director of Mango Communications, said she appreciated that it's not always possible for the news media to use locally or specially taken photographs, but in those instances "it would be good to think that the choice of photograph was made with the audience, geography and ethnic/gender make up in mind". Macdonald applauded the Getty/Lean In initiative, and Mediawomen posted a link to it on their FB page. "So much has changed that it behoves us all to consider both what we say and what we show in case we create the wrong message for those whose opinions are only just being formed," Macdonald said.

The issue of whether or not Stockphotoland would benefit from some diversity is a good one, and there's been lots of debate about that and about the whole Lean In thing in general. My question in the context of this post is whether or not "news" should let itself be invaded by Stockphotoland in the first place. Remember the advertising/editorial divide? These images, as Frosh says, were made for and by advertisers and marketers, and to my mind attaching them to a news story doesn't change that. 

It's a point Angela Phillips touches on in her Guardian comment piece on the initiative. She argues it's really the editorial decision that matters -- what a stock pic is telling us is less about the world than about how the person who chose it sees the world. As Phillips puts it: "The choice to use one image rather than another is taken by an an individual. If you think that pictures of leggy, blonde girls jumping is the best way to illustrate an article about exam results, then that is what you will look for. If your image of women is a pair of mammary glands on legs then the chances are you will find pictures that portray them that way. Positive images of women [ed note: or of anyone!!] cannot just be layered on top of Neanderthal editorial judgments." 

Phillips clearly suspects that the Getty initiative will mean switching one set of stereotyped stock pix for another. (Have a look at the collection yourself and see what you think.)

The questions media types need to ask include: what's the purposes of the picture? Is it just click-bait or is it doing something else? If so, what is it doing? How necessary is it, really? If it's just a "key" image, like a key word, to help us quickly identify the subject of the story, there are less-problematic options:


Katherine said...

The link at the bottom (Stock Fantasy Ventures) leads to a page with a number of fake stock photo descriptions, one of which is a description of someone 'hate-fucking' someone else with some improvised weaponry. I closed the page pretty promptly.

AlisonM said...

Thanks, I deleted the link. (And the entire post by mistake, briefly.)

stargazer said...

awesome post alison.

i constantly talk about the way stories about muslims will invariably be accompanied by a photo of a woman or women in a burqa, even if the story is not about women or the burqa. it's exactly the embedding of stereotypes that angers me about this, especially when such a small proportion of muslim women wear burqas.

AlisonM said...

Thanks @Stargazer. And yes (!!) re the "representation" of Muslim women. BTW, I would be happy to add to this post with other Stockphotoland stereotyping if peeps want to email submissions (a screengrab would be ideal) with a comment, though I reserve the right to make decisions re what gets posted. There's now a slightly rewritten version of this post over at (which incorporates an extra bit about the Family First campaign Julie writes about in the post above thise one, and a link back here). You can email me at prochoicehighway[at]gmail[dot]com

Anne Else said...

Terrific post, Alison. I get extremely annoyed by stock photos and their rapidly increasing use. As an editor I fought a constant battle against them being used in, for example, books about NZ education, when it was immediately obvious that the completely irrelevant photos selected were of US schools. But your examples are much more pernicious. There's a good internet piece on the use of stock photos - often the same stock photo - of women (especially naked, back view, and/or headless) on book covers, but I can't find it again!

AlisonM said...

Thanks Anne. There's definitely a j-school research project in there somewhere re NZ media. Email me that piece if you stumble across it again.

AlisonM said...

Someone forwarded me this link to a piece about a "fake" hungry child stock photo to illustrate a story in the UK about food banks. It raises yet more interesting questions about how we "process" these images. I thought I'd share: