How Tonl’s Joshua Kissi uses stock photography to combat stereotypes

By bringing diversity to the most ordinary of images, Kissi increases the exposure for everyone.

Joshua Kissi, who founded the popular style blog Street Etiquette, which morphed into a creative agency, is turning his artistic eye toward the ordinary. Tonl, his new stock photography company, offers original images that feature people of color and different sexual orientations doing everyday things: working out, cooking dinner, hanging at the beach. With customers such as Google, Facebook, and PopSugar deploying Tonl’s images in their marketing and editorial content, the 10-month-old company is already changing standards.


Related: See The 100 Most Creative People In Business 2018

Fast Company: What are some of the problems inherent in stock photography?

Joshua Kissi: It can be a caricature in the worst possible way. Very few stock photography companies are showing images that feel relatable. Part of that is also the lack of ethnic representation. We thought, Let’s show diversity without it looking like you’re just checking off a list.

FC: Most people never think about stock photography at all, but you see it as being very influential. Why?

JK: It can inspire the way future generations see themselves. When I was growing up, I didn’t see being a photographer as attainable. In many [creative] industries, [people of color] don’t know that we can actually work behind the scenes. Stock photography tells a vivid story, through images, of how people live.

FC: Other stock photo companies have made attempts at diversification. How is Tonl different?


JK: Our imagery is authentic. A lot of our subjects aren’t models. So if we’re capturing somebody going to the gym or working as a banker, this is something they really do. We have a section of our site that gives customers a deeper understanding of the images, so they’re not just buying a blank person with a blank slate. There’s a model we work with, Nodumo, a young black woman with albinism who goes to Yale. She wanted to work with us to increase the visibility of people who look like her. The Urban Indian Health Institute [worked with Tonl] because they wanted to create more images of American Indians and Alaska Natives, who aren’t on reservations, for the next generation. That was powerful.

Joshua Kissi is No.64 on the 2018 Most Creative People in Business list. Check out all 100 people here.


About the author

J.J. McCorvey is a staff writer for Fast Company, where he covers business and technology.