May 21, 2019

Representation in Stock Photography

About a year ago, I started to embrace the Health at Every Size movement and decided to give up dieting forever.  A big part of that journey included following inspiring, diverse and larger-bodied people on social media to redefine what diet culture has taught me is the “image of health.” My first thought was, whoa! There are so many amazing people out there that I’ve been sheltered from because I live in a bubble dominated by thin influencers. And second: These are the people that I see in the REAL WORLD—the many shapes, colors, and sizes that make America a beautiful melting pot. Why the hell can’t I find people like this in stock photography?

I saw this lifestyle change start to influence the work I do at Superhuman, especially while making visual brand language guides. A visual brand language guide, just as it sounds, is a book that helps establish rules about how to use the visual pieces of a specific brand. I help inform the brand team what to do, and what not to do, when it comes to their logo. I provide a comprehensive color palette and explain to the user when to use them. I select fonts and alternative fonts and illustrate the hierarchy between font weights and sizes. I define a photography style, explain what works and what doesn’t when it comes to imagery, and provide a handful of sample stock images.

I’ve found that the photography section is often the hardest part of a visual brand language guide. I’ve gotten very good at sifting out inauthentic, corporate-looking, and cliché stock photography. But I encourage every client we work with to include more diversity in their photography, whether that means showing more races, genders, disabilities, ages, or sizes. And while stock photography is getting better, it’s nearly impossible to find high quality images that represent true diversity.

Business photo created by pressfoto –

According to the US Census Bureau, over 40% of the American population isn’t exclusively white. About 19% of the population has a disability. 28% is over 55-years-old. 67% of American women are considered “plus-sized.” So why is it so hard to find an image that represents what America really looks like?

I typed “plus-sized” into the popular stock photography site Shutterstock, to find a handful of images of people grabbing their stomach rolls and looking ashamed. Many included heavy people lounging on the couch with beers and chips, or even people being educated by thin white doctors. I also found images of plus-sized women standing in front of Proex-like backgrounds or on the contrary, posing in burlesque-type lingerie. And there were no men. “Plus-sized man” resulted in weight loss shots or skinny men helping plus-sized women workout.

While some brands are really starting to embrace this diversity—Aerie, Girlfriend Collective, and Knix for example—not every brand has the ability or the budget to do expensive photoshoots. I hope that stock photography sites start to provide more resources to make it easier for brands to properly represent the people in this country. Representation Matters is leading the charge, creating “the world’s first and best site for high-resolution, royalty-free, diverse stock images for commercial use.” And companies like Dove, Getty and Adobe are taking on the challenge of better representation in stock photography as well. But that is just a start!

Photos from the #AerieREAL campaign

The challenge will be in not just representing all people, but representing them in a genuine way. This isn’t just about throwing a heavy person or person of color into a group photo here and there. It’s about showing all types of people doing normal things, in a normal way. What if we showed a plus-sized person exercising, without a skinny person showing them how? What if we showed an older person going to work—like ~45 million baby boomers still do—and not just lying in a hammock?

By working in the marketing world, we hold a special power. We are able to encourage brands to represent themselves in the best way possible. We do so by looking at the world around us, properly aligning to the people who share our values, and helping those people be heard. What better way to build a community than to start representing the millions and millions of people who rarely see themselves in advertising?

Photo from Girlfriend Collective

-Stacia Service

Illustration by Stacia Service

People to follow:
Further reading:

Leave a Reply

More from the Blog


Say Hello to our Production Intern, Kait Krueger!

Meet our new Production intern, Kait Krueger! She’s joined our team virtually as we stay out of the office and our work keeps ramping…

Read More


Say Hi to Our New Senior Project Manager, John Hren!

Distance might keep our office apart, but we’re staying connected, especially as we welcome new folks to the fray! Meet our new Senior Project…

Read More


How Coronavirus Could Change Things for Good

I’m no trend analyst. For example, I did not predict the rise of astrology in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. I did not…

Read More