Reverting to stereotype: The pitfalls of clichés in stock photography
a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
“the stereotype of the woman as the carer”
When it comes to sourcing stock imagery, it’s easy to go for a safe choice, that will likely get signed off. Stereotypes work because they’re part of a general consciousness and are quickly understood, but should we try challenging our audiences, clients and preconceptions?
Anyone who’s sourced stock imagery will be familiar with images like the above. Though seemingly harmless, they can shape our collective values. Images are perhaps now more crucial than ever, in an age of mass online media consumption. Many of us skim through tonnes of content, scanning for headlines and looking at pictures to quickly decipher narratives.
If we’re consuming stock photography without context, and without the text they’re intending to support, we’re coming away with just the base, stereotypical message. Such pervasive stereotypes can be damaging. If women are regularly shown to be passive while men are conducting the business, and if aspirational men are shown to be shaking hands in suits and never carrying and caring for babies, this reduces the roles we feel comfortable playing.
Over the last few years, efforts have been made to better reflect society in stock images. In 2014, Getty launched the Lean In Collection (in collaboration with LeanIn.org), depicting a more diverse range of women. This was a step in the right direction, though was still slated as “surface over substance” (Flavorwire). Various sites have cropped up to provide more authentic images of women, women of colour, fathers and even cannabis smokers.
While we’ve moved on from women laughing alone with salad, we’re often still guilty of reverting to stereotype. Giorgia Aiello, Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, and the Digital Methods Initiative, studied how photos from Getty’s Lean In collection were used. Images of non-white women were generally used on sites focussing on race and ethnicity, and images of women in science and technology were used in articles highlighting the challenges for women working in science. This would suggest that designers are still opting for the ‘safe’ choice and failing to reflect people in a diverse way.
As a new ‘Panic!’ Paper highlights, unfortunately our industry continues to suffer from a lack of diversity, and is lagging behind in adopting measures to tackle inequality and exclusion. At Dawn, we try and ensure we are considerate of diversity both within the confines of our studio and the output of work with our clients. Challenging the framing of the messages they want to deliver is part of our responsibility. If we continue talking about these issues and facing inequality head on as an industry, we can try to confine limited gender and race roles to the past.