How stock images can reinforce racism

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Stock photos surround us in digital and real life — but advertisers, stock image companies and consumers know they have a diversity problem.

Why it matters: Stock photography forms the little noticed backdrop to our lives, and has the power to reinforce or dismantle our implicit racial biases.

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The big picture: Brands know representation and racial diversity matters, especially after 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests.

  • Shutterstock’s 2021 global study of over 2,700 marketers found “65% of marketers agree racial and ethnic diversity is an important factor when targeting campaign audiences.”

  • Yet almost half of those surveyed also said “it can be difficult to reflect their brand with racial and ethnic diversity visually.”

How it works: Axios, like other media companies, relies on stock imagery to create lead visuals for stories. Stock photos form the building blocks of our photo-composites and collages.

  • When choosing stock photos for illustrations, I also select who’s depicted as incarcerated, who’s a student, who’s on strike and who’s a doctor. When white people dominate search results, it’s harder to make illustrations that fairly represent our multiracial reality.

  • At times, I’ve sifted through pages of white people before finding a suitable photo of a person of color.

iStock’s search results for “hand isolated.” Though some token people of color appear, most photos show white people.

So why are the results so white? One factor: The more customers search for racial stereotypes, the more likely those images will keep rising to the top.

What they’re saying: Andrea Gagliano, Getty Images’ head of data science, tells Axios that iStock’s algorithms determining first page search results are a combination of keyword tags, popularity and engagement.

  • “If you only rely on engagement and popularity, you’re going to skew towards white people. … Customer behavior is beginning to change so we should see less of that overtime. But we still have that historical bias,” Gagliano says.

  • To create more balanced searches, iStock (which is owned by Getty Images) adds a secondary algorithm that “tries to match a particular distribution of ethnicities [that better] reflect the society,” she adds.

What to watch: Stock image companies are creating new libraries and filters to help address the issue.

Between the lines: The ethnicity categories chosen by each company reflect the different racial biases in mainstream culture, similar to the evolution of racial categories in the U.S. Census.

  • Adding new libraries and filter options also doesn’t change the overwhelming whiteness of unfiltered searches, as Professor Fernanda Carrera noted in her 2020 study of racism and sexism in stock image banks.

What’s next: Black and brown creators have launched their own stock image sites that showcase racial diversity, including: CreateHER Stock (focused on Black women), Mocha Stock, Nappy, NativeStock Pictures, Pixels in Colour and Tonl.

The bottom line: Though every stock photo conveys a narrative about race, class and gender, viewers may scroll or walk past the image without a second glance, never realizing how much these pictures influence our viewpoints.

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