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Stock photos trade in stereotypes–but they just got more diverse

Getty’s new Project #ShowUs is adding 5,000 new photos of 179 women from 39 countries to the stock image site, to highlight a more culturally representative vision of female beauty, confidence, and success.

For a long time, media and advertising companies interested in licensing photos of empowered women to share with their audiences faced a sad irony: Anyone who entered the search term “woman” into a stock photography site had to wade through plenty of objectifying and exclusionary images to find what they needed. It was almost all white skin, bikini and underwear shots, and over-sexualized glamour.

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That’s not these services’ fault, exactly, but it’s safe to say they enabled it. Most stock photo sites allow photographers to upload their own shots and then tag them with keywords. “It comes up with a curated set, but it doesn’t take [people] long to find imagery that perhaps we wouldn’t have selected for them ourselves,” says Rebecca Swift, the creative insights director at Getty Images, which offers images for license through the Getty site and iStock. “My argument is that we have been creating that [more empowering] content. We haven’t created a way for media businesses and advertisers who want to do the right thing and create a representative campaign, for example, to find that imagery.”

[Photo: Guen Flore/#ShowUs/Getty Images]
An array of 5,000 newly available photographs seeks to change that. It includes multiple images of 179 women from 39 countries in order to highlight a more culturally representative vision of female beauty, confidence, and success, and will be incorporated into Getty Images and live separately as its own collection. The series is purposely diverse, highlighting women of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and skin colors. It includes women with obvious scars and skin conditions. It was shot entirely by photographers from Girlgaze, a female-identifying creative agency to avoid gender bias in the types of poses and looks that got captured. It even has a catchy name and hashtag: Project #ShowUs.

Project #ShowUs is also a Dove campaign; Getty created the work in conjunction with the Unilever brand. For more than a decade, Dove has been known for campaigns featuring regular women without digitally altering how they look (although the idea of commercializing the “body positivity” movement to sell products has drawn its own criticism). But according to a recent global survey of more than 9,000 women that Dove commissioned, roughly 70% still don’t feel represented in the media. “The industry is setting a beauty standard that most women can’t achieve, and that negatively affects their ambition and self-confidence,” says Amy Stepanian, the U.S. marketing director for Dove in an email to Fast Company.

Dove is especially focused on beauty standards and how they affect women’s own self-worth and self-esteem. In conducting the study, the company illuminated just how wide the gap still is between mainstream beauty ideals and how women see themselves and those around them, and how important it is to close that gap. But that’s still just one facet of the much larger problem of how women are represented in stock images. In addition to stock photography historically pushing a narrow definition of beauty, it also tends to confirm limited roles for women in the workplace, or in activities like athletics. Tackling the whole issue of representation–from a diversity of beauty to a diversity of careers and expression and ability–is what the Getty project aims to do.

It’s clear to Getty that the time to focus on this effort is now. The photo company says searches for terms like “strong women” and “women leaders” are up 187% and 202% respectively. But Project #ShowUs isn’t just showing more types of women in ways that may make others feel more appreciated. It gives the people in front of the camera a voice by allowing them to add their own search tags to their images on the service. For the photo below, the woman in casual clothing with short-cropped hair, a nose ring, and skateboard added “warm,” “confident,” and “proud.”

[Image: courtesy Getty]
For another, a woman in more formal attire with dreadlocks added “blackgirlmagic,” “bosslady,” “validated,” and “enlightened” to her own photo. As you can see, Dove will feature those images in its own social media, TV, and print ads. The ads share the subjects’ names, profession, country, and a hash-tagged lesson about what they chose to represent.

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[Image: courtesy Getty]

Giving advertising execs the chance to search by lots of different terms, of course, might help them think beyond the problematic stereotypes that created these issues of representation in the first place. While the price range for licensing the images will vary depending on how they are used, Getty plans to contribute 10% of each fee toward encouraging this type of work. Swift hopes to continue adding photos to at least double the size of the collection by next year.

“We have this global platform, and we’ve worked with pretty much every company you can imagine,” Swift says. “We constantly communicate to them how they should be creating better images or using better images that are more representative of a more diverse range people across all genders. It’s serendipitous I suppose that we were all having these conversations. Coming together has enabled us to extend and amplify that work in a much bigger way.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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