Women To Get A Stronger Image In Stock Photography


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The stock industry is about to change.

We’ve heard that before but this time the change, if it happens, will be positive, affect content rather than distribution and will give new opportunities to photographers to shoot not just more images but more interesting images.

The change is coming from Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s CEO has teamed up with Getty to promote a new collection of images that portray women in a more positive way. Instead of the usual clichéd stock images of women in suits, women holding babies and women laughing alone with salad, the collection will show girls on skateboards, women in the operating theatre and women planing wood. Even men get a look in with dads now shown wearing the bjorn.

The collection currently contains more than 2,500 images which will be returned alongside the usual results for relevant search terms. Buyers can also search the collection exclusively. Ten percent of the proceeds from the photos will go to LeanIn.org, Sandberg’s non-profit organization.

The aim, says Sandberg, is to change the way women and girls are portrayed in the media and to remove many of the old stereotypes that she believes hold women and girls back.

“When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome,” Sheryl Sandberg told The New York Times, “and you can’t be what you can’t see.”

The effect of the shift in imagery could be huge. The three most-searched keywords on Getty are “women”, “business” and “family” and yet buyers often complain they can’t find the images that portray those keywords in the way they want. Writing in The Cut last November, for example, Emily Shornick produced a slideshow of results for the keywords the publication typically needs to illustrate. “Girl power” and “feminist” returned women, often scantily clad, in boxing gloves and gripping dumbbells and power tools; “career women” stand on cliffs or climb symbolic ladders, hold folders and fall asleep on computers; a “businesswoman” is a multi-armed octopus who can hold a baby, a computer, a frying pan and an iron in her many hands. Despite the millions of images available on stock sites, few of the results produced the “feminine sass” the publication was hoping to find when it searched for “girl power.”

The aims of Getty’s new collection then are laudable. More images of women engineers and female coders in the media and in advertising can only be a good thing for encouraging girls to take up the sciences. They may even come as a relief to photographers looking for a shoot more creative than one that involves telling another model in a business suit to hold a laptop and smile.

Do Advertisers Want Strong Women?

The question, though, is whether buyers will go for these new portrayals. The Cut might be looking for sassy images of girl power but how representative is that magazine of buyers in general?

It’s possible, in fact, that despite the advances women have made in the workplace over the last few decades, art buyers have gone backwards.

In 1981, Lego’s famous ad showed a little girl holding a model made of colored bricks. That ad wasn’t just portraying the creativity that its product allowed children to enjoy. It was also suggesting that its bricks were for all children, boys and girls alike. Today’s toy marketing is much more gendered. Stores now are more likely to have pink shelves for girls and blue shelves for boys. In catalogs, girls brush princesses, pet puppies and play with dolls; boys build towers, push cars and experiment with chemistry sets.


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That three-quarters of the more feminist images now included in Getty’s Lean In collection aren’t new suggests the company might indeed struggle to make sales. Those photos were drawn from Getty’s main collection where, presumably, they were passed over by buyers who chose instead to purchase images with traditional portrayals.

For photographers, that represents a dilemma. As keen as photographers might be to produce more positive depictions of girls and women, they have to shoot what sells not what they wish customers would buy (especially if that 10 percent donation to LeanIn.org is taken before Getty has calculated their royalties.) Restaurant owners might wish people would buy fruit juice instead of soda, but if people buy soda, they’ll continue to offer it. This wouldn’t be the first time that buyers have complained about the stereotyped nature of stock imagery even as they fill their shopping carts with it.

Getty Can Make The Market

The real strength of this initiative though is that Getty has thrown its weight behind it. The company doesn’t just supply images to a market. It also tries to influence that market. Each year, its research department issues reports on trends in the stock industry. That tells photographers what they might want to shoot if they want to increase their sales but it also tells buyers what they should be buying if they don’t want their ads to look old and out of date. Getty is influential enough to create trends as well as report on them. Current trends, the company says, include a preference for realistic body shapes and more shots of women at work.

Getty’s collaboration with Lean In is a positive move but photographers will need to be careful. It’s easy for Getty to promote a particular kind of image but if the sales of those new images fail to occur it will be the photographers who are left holding the bill for the shoots. Photographers who find that their traditional portrayals of happy salad eaters and boxing businesswomen make them profits shouldn’t have to risk their revenues to please buyers who are afraid to take risks themselves.

The best strategy will be to continue shooting images that you know can find buyers, keep an eye on the trends and the Lean In collection, and ease more positive portrayals into the shoots as you see those becoming popular.

If the stock industry is changing again, we’ll all need to manage that change carefully.


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