Photo Buyers Still Asking for More Ethnic Diversity in Images




Photography: Shockadelic

For as long as John Griffin has been running CutCaster, the image marketplace he founded in 2008, he’s been hearing the same request from buyers. They want to see more “everyday” people in stock inventories, they tell him, and in particular, they want to see more “ethnicity” represented. It’s a request that crops up frequently whenever you ask designers and image buyers about the sorts of images they’d like to see photographers creating.

“I need more diversity in the subjects,” one buyer of medical-themed photography told us recently in response to a post on a design forum asking what they’d like from photographers. “The stock that’s out there is overwhelmingly Caucasian.”

Joe Frazee, who works in the pre-press department of a small town print shop, described the difficulty that his company has been having tracking down suitable images for one client, an education group in Ohio. Over the last few years, Joe said, the association has requested that more photos of Black, Asian and Hispanic teachers be included in its quarterly publication to ensure that the magazine accurately reflects the growing diversity in the state and the school district. Despite having a subscription to ThinkStock, a fee that provides access to select images from Getty Images, iStockphoto and Jupiterimages, his company has been forced to extend its search to other sites to meet the demand. While ThinkStock has some images of diversity, he says, it falls short.

Photographers might retort that the images available reflect the population of the US and Europe, the biggest consumers of imagery. Both markets have sizable and important minority populations but they are still predominantly Caucasian, so shooting white models is more likely to please more potential buyers than creating images that only appeal to a subset of buyers. But a quick glance at sales figures suggests there’s real benefit in meeting the demand for images that represent those minorities. Conduct a search for “couple” at iStockPhoto and the first image returned is Kevin Russ’s photo of an African-American family. The picture has sold more than 6,800 downloads. Ethnic models appear in four of the 30 most popular photos returned for that keyword term, including one multi-ethnic composition entitled (not very subtly) “Beautiful Diverse Family.” While there may be less demand overall for images that are specifically ethnic, the relatively small number of suitable images available means that images with ethnic models face less competition for each request and stand a good chance of making sales.

“We Need an Asian in Here!”

How that diversity should be represented though isn’t quite so clear. The same designer that complained about the predominance of Caucasian models noted that he was looking specifically for diversity within each shot, so that lots of different ethnic groups are represented in the same photograph. When he does come across people of color, the designer complained, (something another buyer described as a process that can take “hours”) they’re usually in the form of a family shot, rather than in an image that depicts a group of people as diverse as the design’s audience.

That might suggest that photographers should be advertising for models representative of different ethnic groups and shooting them together. But the risk of that approach is that the images may no longer look natural. Worse, they can look like they’ve been shot according to a checklist of different ethnic types each of which has to be represented at least once.

“When trying to find a group shot, I’m always running into a scene where you can just imagine the photographer screaming ‘ASIAN! WE NEED AN ASIAN IN HERE!’ because they want the perfect ‘diversity mix’ of one Caucasian, one Black, one Asian, one Hispanic, etc.,” said one source who works in the large format print industry. “I’m totally okay with two White guys and an Asian guy in a shot. The mix shouldn’t look pre-planned, which most of them seem to be nowadays.”

Are Your Models Old Enough to Drink?

And it’s not just ethnic diversity that’s both underrepresented and difficult to create. Age is also important, and photographers can have particular ideas about the sorts of activities in which different age groups might take part. One designer who has done a lot of work for bars, pubs and casinos complained that it was almost impossible to find pictures of people in their thirties and forties at a bar or a party. Those sorts of models are more likely to be shot at exclusive restaurants and in the daytime, he noted. And yet, when it comes to shots of people drinking, clients need to be sure that they can’t be accused of advertising to minors, which means using models who are clearly older than 19 or 21.

Ideally, of course, these things shouldn’t matter and perhaps the heart of the problem is that to most people they don’t. When photographers look for models, their first concern is usually the models’ ability to pose and how good they look in front of the camera, rather than the ethnic groups to which those models might also belong. While some end-clients, such as public service education associations, want the images that appear in their publications to reflect all of their readers, others aren’t concerned at all. Another designer, the art director of a Canadian tourist magazine, noted that in her country, color isn’t an issue when it comes to using images.

“There is never a discussion at my office about how we need to get someone Asian, Caucasian or whatever,” she explained. “It’s about what is the best shot… that is all that matters…. That is why for us the racial diversity is not a big issue. It’s more about how stunning the photo is.”

It’s a sentiment with which many photographers would agree, even if it did mean losing the chance to fill a potentially profitable gap in the market.


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