Why ‘Diversity’ Matters in Stock Photography

The term ‘diversity’ always troubles me. What people mean by it is that ‘minorities’ (those other people) should be, you know, included in things. As though it’s some kind of big favour — we’re acknowledging your non-Christianness at Christmas, so we’re so progressive. We’re including a Latino character in this television series even though he’s not a lead, so we’re listening to calls for more representation. There are gay characters in this book, which makes it diverse and therefore, you know, ‘inclusive.’ I’m tired of being told that people who don’t fit a very narrow series of social definitions are others that need to be thought of as extra for inclusion, rather than just people.

You know how recipes say ‘nuts optional’? That’s how people seem to view diversity. Sprinkle it in after you’ve made the rest of the dough!

Because representation is so skewed, it becomes a big deal when it happens, something I personally struggle with. I wish a disabled character could be totally unremarkable — hey, a disabled character doing stuff, whatever. I’m delighted when a disabled character isn’t framed as special or unique or magical because of the disability, but rather as someone who’s just disabled, no big deal. On the other hand, the character becomes a figure of comment because of the rarity of disability. We have to talk about it, because it’s important, just as we have to talk about nonwhite (because white is the default?) characters, about characters of different social classes, about LGBQT characters, and so forth. I’m reminded of the great brouhaha over a ‘Black Annie.’ Quvenzhané Wallis wasn’t a ‘Black Annie.’ She was an actress who happened to be cast in a role, just like Misty Copeland was cast in the lead in Swan Lake. Yet, they were singled out for being Black — because the casting was ‘unusual’ in a world where both roles were considered white by default because only white people had ever played them.

This issue comes up a great deal in stock photography. I do a lot of photo research in my line of work, and it’s often very frustrating for me not just because I can have trouble finding an image that works, but because often, the images I see all feature the same kinds of people. They are white, they have a specific body type, they don’t have any evident disabilities. When you pull up an image of generic people in a boardroom or people doing something or what have you, those people are always, always the same.

And it’s frustrating. Because there’s no reason for that. You could just as well show a Southeast Asian woman seated at a computer in an article about female programmers, or even about programmers in general. You could show a woman in a wheelchair with an article about a political march. You could show a blind person in a conversation for an article where you, er, need two people chatting in the image hed. For an article about bicycling, you could have a fat woman cheerfully biking along a lakeshore, or a disabled woman on a modified bike.

Yet, such images are actually rather hard to find. If you search Flickr for, say ‘woman,’ you’re going to turn up an extraordinary amount of white women (and porn. Featuring white women.). If you look for ‘programmer,’ you’re going to find white men seated at their computers. ‘Biking’ yields slim white people in biking gear, bent over the handlebars with intense concentration. ‘Hikers’ are white. ‘Families’ are white. ‘Businesspeople’ are nondisabled. When images do include people from other classes of humanity, they’re sold as ‘diverse!’ and ‘special!’

Sometimes you’ll encounter something like a group picture with token minorities. The classic example is, of course, the smiling businesspeople in the boardroom with, perhaps, a Black woman off to the side, or a Latino at the edge of the frame. In these kinds of images, the only diversity considered is usually racialised — the thought of depicting other social groups is evidently beyond ken. Thus you won’t see someone with a cane seated at the table.

If you want to find someone like a person with disabilities using a computer, you need to specifically search for that on Flickr and stock photography websites. You will discover that such images are given special tags, and that they are generally used only to illustrate articles about ‘social issues.’ Thus, the Black female programmer only appears in a niche article about toxic workplaces for Black women in tech. The disabled guy seated at a computer is only in disability articles or pieces about ‘inclusive’ workplaces. The gay couple kissing at the altar is for articles about gay marriage. Because these people are special. They are minorities. They should be singled out. They are not to be used as generic illustrations for articles about ‘real people things.’

Think of the last time you saw a gay couple representing ‘marriage’ or ‘relationships’ on an article about such subjects that wasn’t focused specifically on LGBQ relationships. Think about the last time you saw a poly triad used, for that matter. It’s okay, I’ll wait. When did you last see a Black woman in firefighting gear on a story about firefighting, or a Latino programmer in the hed of an article about the industry. That might happen now and then, but it’s rare.

There’s a specific kind of person we view and code as generic, the general person, the default. And that is the sort of person we encounter repeatedly, over and over and over again. We encounter it in photoillustrations. We see it in books — we assume that characters are white and nondisabled, heterosexual and middle class, until proved otherwise. We see it in film and television.

When people talk about diversity from the other end of the stick, they don’t mean that they should be tokenised and given special roles for other people to learn from. They mean that they should just be there, part of the world. Because for a pretty large chunk of the time, we are. I’m queer, but that doesn’t mean I spend most of my time being queer — I still cook meals and work and read books like people with other sexual identities. There’s not a ‘heterosexual’ way to poach an egg or a ‘gay’ way to steam asparagus. I’m disabled, but I still vacuum the floors and take out the cat litter. We do all the things that everyone does, because we are all human — and I don’t mean ‘we are all human’ in that noxious sense used to erase identities, but in the sense that we are tired of being depicted as special unique snowflakes that only appear when specifically summoned.

If you’re in an editorial position, try expanding your perception of stock photography and photoillustration for a change. Use images that aren’t of the default everyman. Just try it. Try it for a week. Dare to delve into those special and unique tags like ‘disabled’ and ‘gay’ and ‘Asian’ and to use those images as illustrations of ordinary people doing ordinary things.

You might be surprised by the results.

Image: Thinkin’ about the code, Ed Yourdon, Flickr