Jesse Nivens | Essays

In Search of Stock(y) Photography

Odalisca, Fernando Botero, 1998

I work for a company that manufactures fitness equipment. While working on a new marketing piece, I found myself in the seemingly normal situation of needing a general stock photograph of an overweight person. Given that the majority of Americans are overweight, acquiring this picture should be no big deal, right? Well, I was mistaken.

Actually, I needed several stock pictures of different "real" people, and quickly found my fill of extremely attractive models in every conceivable fitness pose. But I noticed something else: as I was clicking through page after page, I hadn't been able to download anyone who was overweight. So I went to the search field and narrowed it to just "overweight people."

Overweight People: 164 results.

Only 164 results! So then I changed my search to the less politically correct "fat people:"

Fat People: 470 results.

Not only were there just a few pictures in these catagories, they were almost all unusable. The vast majority of the results were simply more images of generally fit, attractive, and muscular people. The rest were either random photos or — oddly — pregnant women. (Since when was a pregnant woman "fat" by default?)

For fun, I searched for "attractive people," already knowing the number would be big, and sure enough, I was right:

Attractive People: 39,350 results.

That's right: in the alternate universe of stock photography, attactive people outnumber fat people 84 to one.

There's no question that corporate design has been overrun by stock photography: from a business standpoint, there's no reason why it shouldn't be. It's cheap (download 25 10 - 50 megabyte photos a day for just over a hundred bucks a month) and quick. Stock photo sites are like a candy store of concepts: bright, colorful, crisp, tasty, and endless in variety. (And some would argue that using stock photos, as opposed to well thought out original photography or illustration, is like just like eating candy as opposed to real food.)

But what struck me the most here is how the business model of stock photography — make available the pictures you know people will like, because those pictures sell — is a direct reflection of our worldview. As a culture, we have taken the idea of "overweight" and completely blocked it out. Even though the majority of Americans are overweight, their appearance in run of the mill, stock-photo-driven advertising is extremely limited.

Additionally, the use of these images, if you can find them, is relegated to niche issues: you use a picture of an overweight person only if you're talking about, say, poor fitness, and that's it. It is similar to years past when someone in a racial majority might only use the picture of a person in a minority group when dealing with a "minority issue," instead of including pictures like these on a day to day basis, as most of us try to do now. But interestingly, these days this "advertising discrimination" has been reversed: designers and photographers, the majority of whom are overweight, just like everyone else, are avoiding the majority.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Photography

Comments [26]

Nice piece Jesse.

As leader of a community stock photo site I came across this same phenomenon: Confessions of a CEO

I spend a good amount of time trying to understand what types of images people buy. Our community dictates much of what is published, but content decisions are made based on sales and appealing to buyers that think they want tanned, skinny white-toothed models.

We encourage diversity in our images, but the market often drives decisions.
Bryan Zmijewski

Stock photography is used to sell things, it is aspirational. No one aspires to be fat.

I've had a similar problem looking for pictures of students with disabilities - almost all of them reflected the disability in a negative light. One of them had a young girl in a wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairs looking like she was about to cry. Not exactly the image of inclusivity I was after...

Designing material for a UK-based higher education organisation, the other big problem I'm facing is that all the stock images I find are distinctly American-looking. I'm not saying I want pictures of rainclouds and bad teeth, but sometimes a picture of some Gap-clad tanned jocks just doesn't look right!

Great article! The "model" problem has been the bane of my design existence for several years, as I design for state government agency, creating online training about subjects like sexual harassment, discrimination, disabilities, and diversity. The employees there don't generally wear ties or high heels, they mostly don't look like models, and they are ethnically diverse. Customers of the agency are often dealing with highly personal and private issues, and do not wish to be photographed in our offices. That leaves me scrambling for metaphorical pictures and anything to make due with.

Sites like Stock Xchng and Flickr are really helping to get quality photos of real people out, and they have really made my job easier! I also try to contribute the kinds of pictures I need for my projects to help out other designers in the same situation.

A quick search on Flickr for "fat" returned 116,170 results. Of course, many were shots of obese cats, but still I think it demonstrates how such sites are changing the way we source images.

I think the reason you are having so much trouble is due to the simple factor of Supply and Demand.

Also, your particular project is for a fitness equipment company, I couldn't imagine that they would want overweight people being associated with their equipment in any form. Consumers want to imagine the results that they could achieve by using the equipment, not what they may feel like at that particular moment.

As for stock photography sites, it's absolutely true. But that's due to Supply & Demand. The majority of people don't use keywords such as unattractive, overweight, ugly, etc. Even if you were to search for these words, you would end up finding a model mocking that description. Glasses with tape around the center, sticking their teeth out or morphing their face into an unattractive expression. I think any person who would find their image associated with those keywords may even be offended or embarrassed. Is it a question of not offending those in the images? We are constantly being told to be sensitive to others and to not call a disabled person, well...disabled. So how would you be able to search for a disabled, handicapped, whatever word you should use, on a stock site without being offensive?

The question being raised is where is the real-life photography? That's up to the users doing the searching, the photographers doing the work, the judges selecting the work, and the sites setting the keywords.
diane witman

Great article!!

Interesting that this post comes straight after one about a certain Mr Hitler!

Concepts are being mashed together a little freely here.
The term overweight does actually have a definition, and it doesn't immediately translate to to what you'd visually call "fat," which is going to be much more toward the "obese" end of that scale. So the question then is whether you're looking for people who happen to be (a bit or more) overweight or people who are say...obese. And did you actually try "obese," for that matter?

Next: Where were you searching? This is extremely important. The reasons for your numbers being low(er) have been covered. Stock photography is pretty inherently idealized, but numbers don't exist in a vacuum. Intentionally or not, you're making your failed search at StockCompanyX represent the entire industry.

For what it's worth, a search for "overweight people"(photography only) at Getty returned 1330 results compared to your 164. "Overweight" by itself returned a slightly higher number. While I didn't go through all 23 pages, a quick survey pretty consistently showed chunky folk in a wide variety of situations. "Attractive people" only netted 4990. Still a lot more, but not nearly the exaggeration of the example provided. Ultimately, this seems to be more about your company of choice than about stock photography.

Beyond issues of specific terms used, there's the question of the quality of the search engine and its categorization. Getty's for example, doesn't even ultimately allow a search for "fat people." Try it, and see what happens.

Why was "attractive" selected as the opposite of "fat"? Is this a peculiarity of the tagging system of the stock photography site used?
Kip Manley

Jesse, great points.
Kip, you beat me to it.

Sometimes stock doesn't work - you have to actually plan and shoot the picture you need. Back in the old days (when I was a young designer), stock was only used by hacks -- now it's the norm. For my money, a custom shot is still the best way to go if you're communicating a specific idea.

i'm from canada and live in a government town. try finding a picture of an aboriginal person doing anything. very diffucult!

I recommend trying sites like FILE or Flak to find images and photographers doing different kinds of work.
Rick Jones

Isn't the primary goal of stock photography to supply a demand?

While stock photography sites can easily have a nice big database of cats in cowboy hats (for all your cat-fancy-rodeo needs!), if no one is going to really buy them it's just bad business sense to take the time to hire photographers to set up all those shots.

I'm not quite sure if it is the job of a stock photography company to promote a wider diversity of things people can use to make a visual statement.

Meanwhile, I went to see if my options to using overweight people would be as limited as yours by hitting up the sites I normally check for quick stock shots.

istockphoto had 7086 matches for overweight, with 1110 matches for overweight + exercising

(on the side I also checked for wheelchair + teen, which only resulted in 13 hits, but only 2 were in a negative light)

masterfile had 59 rights managed and 138 royalty-free images of overweight + exercising, and 1,053 RM/1,506 RF images of just overweight. they also had a lot of the exercise shots appearing to be positive (at least on the first page).

veer had 2176 overweight shots, with 132 on overweight + exercising. The latter search had a fair range of positive and negative attitude images on the first page.

gettyimages resulted in 2590 for overweight, and 227 for overweight + exercising (which seemed more positive than negative).

While I understand it would be nice if there were 40,000+ images of every possible topic to cover, i think it's silly to expect that from a stock photography company. there will always be the point where, if you want something exactly the way you want it, especially if it is a niche concept, you'll just have to be all old-school and pay someone to do it.

Over 45? I bet you call people full figured. I just looked full figured women up in google. Plenty.

This is a great post; thank you! I feel strongly that this discussion - how we are shaping our culture with the images, brands and messages we create - needs to go much further. As an industry we should be responsible for using images in a way that shows realistic aspirations and accurate reflections of our society.

For example, Madrid and other fashion centers are banning models that are too thin from the runway. Shouldn't we generally avoid using ultra-thin models in in the stock we choose (or the images we commission), in an effort to not reinforce unhealthy notions of beauty or normality? Are the images we are choosing/creating so unmatched with reality, that we are reinforcing thoughts of inadequacy in our culture?

In campaign form, this is probably best represented in Dove's "campaign for real beauty". An awareness/marketing campaign isn't the answer though; the solution needs to span all the marketing messages we produce. As so many people commented, it is all about supply and demand. And we need to recognize WE are the ones who control the demand. The key though is not just demanding a wider variety of "real" images and realistic aspirations, but also having the courage to use them.
Mike Williams

Sites like Stock Xchng and Flickr are really helping to get quality photos of real people out, and they have really made my job easier!

Ummm, a little off topic, but Flickr is not a stock photography site. I hope you are observing the copyright of the authors.
Mr. One-Hundred

That painting is by Fernando Botero, a high known artist from Colombia, South America... he has esculptures all around the world so his paintings in so many places.
german salamanca

I can't find a stock foto I like.

Go take a picture yourself.

How about lazy designers?

Interesting discussion! I encountered the same phenomenon when searching by the keyword "ugly." This essay, by Mary Devereux for the American Society For Aesthetics, is a pretty good explanation of why calling someone ugly makes us feel so uneasy.

What if you expanded your search for the image by looking up a photographer who could create the image for you.
If all you want to spend is $100 then how can you complain about having no selection.
Pete Soos

Getty: 1322.
Corbis: 1908.

The majority usable and realistic in their classification of "overweight" (no pregnancies!)

Here's a great book for Tillie, who was looking for pictures of handicapped, younger people. I thought that i also saw on the aperture site a new book of nude photos of "overweight" people, but now I can't find it.
Maggie Hohle

Leonard Nimoy has recently published a book of his fat nudes, and Laurie Toby Edison also has a book of fat nudes. And all presented in positive, sensual, and shame-free manner.

Thanks for the comments all. It is especially interesting to see the research others conducted on this topic: in writing it, I looked at many different sites, and saw great imbalances in all of them, especially considering that the majority population is overweight.

Pete Soos and Eric, I hope this article isn't misconstrued as a rant about one particular subject that I couldn't find good stock photos to illustrate. Nor is it a declaration of my unwillingness to create or contract my own photos. If you read further you see that I describe stock photos as vastly inferior to original illustration and photography.

However, despite good arguments about its critical/artistic inferiority, the stock photography industry has become enormous. And, due to its aspirational and supply-and-demand nature, the types/quantities of pictures we find on stock photo sites provide a great reflection of our culture and worldview.
Jesse Nivens

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