Color Correction

A few years ago, Jenifer Daniels, who worked in public relations, was at her computer confronting the same dilemma faced by many a harried editor: she needed a picture and couldn’t find one. So she turned to the stock-photo agencies—Shutterstock, Adobe, Getty. Daniels lived in Detroit, which is about 80 percent Black, and her clients were predominantly in the public sector, so she needed images of Black people working in an office. But on the stock-photography sites she visited, she couldn’t find them.

Unlike news or documentary photography, stock photos are under no obligation to portray a specific reality; instead, they need only conjure a plausible reality. They are not images that say Here is the thing we are talking about, but rather When we talk about this thing, we conjure this image and we think you do, too. Too often, however, Black and brown people are left out of the picture: in 2014, around the same time Daniels was having trouble with her image search, Athena Papadopoulou, a graduate student in Sweden, pulled a few hundred photos at random from Getty and observed that a majority of the shots centered white subjects or positioned them as the source of authority. “The Caucasian model holds the center of the picture,” Papadopoulou concluded in a report, “while there seems to be a well-calculated balance regarding the ethnicity of the models surrounding them.” 

Too often, Black and brown people are left out of the picture. 

Take the art that Slate ran with a November column about a young man envious of his genius brother. It’s a photo illustration composed of two white stock-image faces in a standoff. Are there pictures of brown people eyeing each other tensely? As surely as there are brown people in real life eyeing each other tensely. But it’s not as easy to find them, which means that, here, for the column’s readers, tension over genius is placed in the province of white people. A nitpick, sure, but it’s a dynamic reinforced across news outlets, time and again.

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A long-term project of white supremacy has been the divorcing of nonwhiteness from images of success—even of normalcy. (The doll experiments highlighted during Brown v. Board of Education, in which Black children assigned more positive attributes to white dolls than to Black ones, taught us that much.) The images of supposed inferiority that white supremacy pushes are produced through actually inferior housing, education, and employment outcomes, to name a few, which in turn are produced by racially hostile policies or neglect, its own kind of hostility. The natural inclination, then, is to focus on the pictures themselves as a means of reverse-engineering all that bigoted machinery. To picture Black people and other people of color in normal situations is to do just that.

As far as the journalism industry is concerned, there are, of course, larger questions to attend to: Are stories diverse enough to require diverse illustration? Are diverse writers putting them together? Are diverse editors assigning them? These are all different fights, each one worthy in its own particular way. But if they must all be fought, and if displaying a plausible reality where Black people work in offices stimulates progress on the other fronts, then it remains a vital part of the larger struggle. 

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Stock photography has been around for about as long as photography has: during the Civil War, Mathew Brady and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, two New York photographers, began stockpiling images of battle to sell to newspapers and the general public. A few decades later, H. Armstrong Roberts, a screenwriter, founded what might have been the first stock-photo agency—as a side gig, he staged posed pictures to illustrate whatever his clients fancied. The industry grew. In the 1990s, Getty Images and Bill Gates’s Corbis trawled the world for new stock databases and photo archives, rolling them up into giant collections. When Getty went public, in 1996, it reported annual revenues of $85 million. In 2008, the last year before it again went private, it reported revenues of $858 million.

But despite the size and breadth of the major stock-photo agencies, there were certain omissions. Chi Modu, a former photography director for The Source, launched a stock-photography business, Diverse Images, after he left the magazine, in 1998. Speaking to the historian Jeff Chang for Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop (2006), he explained that he was trying to broaden stock photography’s racial lens, which meant “not just African-Americans, but Asian people, Latin people, all sorts of people who are underserved.” It’s fitting that Modu came from a magazine focused on rap, since hip-hop was just then achieving hegemony, and the diverse images it spawned were proliferating as never before. Likewise, Rick Leckrone founded Blend Images in 2005 with the intention to make stock photography more inclusive. “Where homogeneity once prevailed, diversity is now becoming the norm,” he said in a 2010 interview. “Logically, it follows that advertising must reflect these contemporary cultural realities of society to be effective.” Those efforts aside, paleness persisted.

Stock photography, seeking to anticipate any need, suggested that anything might be out there, no matter how bizarre or silly.

The years that followed brought the rise of online publishing, and art proved crucial to standing out on social media. Few digital outlets (or solo bloggers) could afford to commission photography; the demand for stock images shot up. In the early 2010s, journalists began to notice the oddities that lurked in the stock catalogs they mined for illustrations. Things could get weird: for every Woman Laughing with Salad, there was a Baboon Throwing Laptop off Table. The New York Times once described the profitability of a given stock photo as akin to that of a penny stock (a lottery ticket, essentially). Stock photography, seeking to anticipate any need, suggested that anything might be out there, no matter how bizarre or silly. The same impulse that leads to Wait, really? could also lead to someone’s Yes, finally.

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Daniels, still unable to locate the pictures she sought, began carving out room in project budgets to hire photographers for one-offs. She was also aware that others shared her frustration. In 2015, she and a partner, James Stewart Jr., launched Colorstock, a stock-photo clearinghouse that would specialize in images of people of color. She threw herself into learning about the industry, the rights regimes, the market. Her best-selling photo, she remembers, was one of her daughter. 


As Colorstock grew, however, Daniels realized that she had staked out an untenable position. From below, she noticed that scammers (“internet hustlers,” she calls them) were mimicking her photos and undercutting her on price. From above, she saw that larger stock-photography agencies were keeping tabs on her. (For a sense of what she was up against, consider that Shutterstock, an industry giant worth $1.3 billion, told investors on an October earnings call that it has 550,000 contributors.) These bigger players expressed interest in her project, reaching out to suggest that Daniels upload her photos to their platforms. “They came to us with requests for us to put our catalog on their site,” she recalls. “Not a licensing deal. Not a partnership. Not even a job.” Daniels learned that other companies specializing in diverse photos were being approached in a similar way.

Boutique firms like Colorstock are born of a lack within the larger players. But if those larger players take notice of the critique and diversify their offerings, they leave less room for the smaller shops to flourish. And although a bigger outlet might be able to pay for a constellation of photo services, a smaller publication might have trouble shouldering more than one or two subscriptions, which makes it harder to support a specialized agency. Last spring, sensing that there was no more room for her, Daniels pulled the plug. “I realized I had built a business that was not defendable,” she says.

Other services lined up to take its place: Mocha Stock and Diversity Photos both launched in 2017. In August 2018, Joshua Kissi and Karen Okonkwo launched TONL, another site trading in diverse imagery. “It’s refreshing to use it for things that aren’t necessarily tied to Blackness, like drinking coffee,” Wilbert Cooper, a Black editor at Vice, who commissioned a piece praising the database, tells me. Kissi and Okonkwo raised the money for TONL themselves, and don’t mind having partners, including Adobe, which also works with Mocha and Diversity Photos. Fiona Gardner, an Adobe spokesperson, wrote to me, “As we evolve and grow the Adobe Stock collection, the need for diverse, inclusive, representative stock has become an ever more explicit and crucial part of what we do.” 

Stock photography creates plausible realities—and that’s all it can do. You can now find a picture of a Black person in an office a little bit more easily, though. That’s something.

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Melvin Backman is a writer based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Garage, Vogue, GQ, and Spook.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Sara Wong