Female images typically found in stock photos are airbrushed models posing in starkly stereotypical scenes: sexy domestic, sexy business, and sexy-wearing-a-hardhat. These images have a great deal to say about societal perceptions of women and girls.
That’s why it’s such good news that Getty Images, in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s empowerment organization Lean In, is releasing the Lean In Collection. The library of more than 2,500 images shows women and girls in real and powerful roles.
However, there’s another stock photo bias. Back in 2010 while layout for my book Free Range Learning was being finalized, the editors allowed me to choose the photos that would appear every few pages. I delved into the stock photo world expecting to find a whole range of relevant images, such as kids exploring nature, engaged in make-believe, being silly, spending time with people of all ages, you know, being kids. Because the book’s topic is homeschooling and alternative education, I also wanted to avoid images of young people in class settings (indoors or out).
No matter what search terms I tried, I kept coming up with the same limiting choices. Any variation of “learning” produced classroom-type results as well as endless photos of kids facing computer screens. It was extremely difficult to find representations of kids volunteering, doing chores, or engaged in any other purposeful work. It was even more impossible to find kids in mixed age groups (babies to elders) doing anything other than staring right at the camera with the fake merriment that seems to infest stock photos.
Gender bias was blatant.
For example, any search term including “boys” showed many more active images than the same search term including “girls.” When I tried to find photos specifically of teenaged girls, the results were downright alarming. Page after page showed two categories: grimly pensive faces or, more often, coy come-on faces.
Of course, there are many ways to measure limitations and bias. (I’m particularly fond of the way Sociological Images juxtaposes images with analysis.) But the perception of youth in our culture as shown by stock photos doesn’t come close to portraying the vibrantly whole lives we see around us.
As for my efforts, I gave up after several days of bleary-eyed searching and chose no stock photos for my book. Instead, I asked people from around the country to contribute pictures of their kids doing all sorts of things. The images are small and low res, but they’re a far more valid representation of today’s young people.