I’ve written recently about the need to use meaningful visuals to accompany your text. In passing, I mentioned the downsides of that frequent last resort, stock photography, but left it to an article by Heather Rubesch, elsewhere on the web, to provide details.
The controversy in the last week over the use—or misuse—of stock photographs by VegNews magazine suggests that a deeper examination of the pitfalls of stock photography is in order.
The magazine has evidently been in the habit of taking stock shots of meat-based meals and using them to illustrate articles about vegan dishes. In at least one case, they have acknowledged using Photoshop to eliminate the bones from an image of what they wished were vegan ribs but weren’t. Some vegans have been deeply offended by this practice. One vegetarian and editor even went so far as to call for the editorial awards VegNews received from Folio: magazine to be rescinded. That might be ever-so-slightly extreme, but it illustrates the strong feelings that stock photography can inadvertently generate.
Rather than dwell on the VegNews example, which has been exhaustively covered on the web, let’s look at a couple of other recent instances of stock-art misuse. They point out three common pitfalls of stock photography.
One of those pitfalls is when a strong relationship is implied between the subject of the stock art and the subject being illustrated. That’s what happened on a website touting the presidential potential of Newt Gingrich. On its front page, an image of Gingrich and his wife is superimposed over a photograph of a racially diverse group of men and women waving American flags. Though to the naive eye it might appear that the people pictured are actual Gingrich supporters, the shot in fact comes from Getty Images. The effect, as Rubesch cautiously puts it, is “to make Newt’s supporters look more multi-cultural and diverse than perhaps they are in actuality.” Did the site designer intend the people pictured to be seen as real Gingrich supporters? Probably not. But they were surely meant to reflect the kind of people who support him.
If the shot had conformed to the picture most people have of Gingrich’s supporters, its stock-house origins would probably have gone unremarked. But because the the association looked so unlikely, it triggered doubts (and some amusing parodies). The lesson here is to respect the generic nature of stock photography. The people in that picture aren’t real people—they were effectively turned into icons by Getty Images. But the way the designer used the photo, they have been reanimated into specific human beings: real, live supporters. This wouldn’t have happened with a drawing because the iconic nature of the art would be too obvious. But with a photograph, it’s all too easy to slip into deception.
A second pitfall can open up when stock photographs are not in fact generic, but very specific—or seem to be. When the U.S. Postal Service went looking recently for a close-up of the Statue of Liberty to illustrate a Forever stamp, they went to a stock art supplier for the image. The only problem, as the USPS discovered too late, was that the close-up was not of the actual Statue of Liberty, but of a replica in Las Vegas.
Needless to say, it helps to read the fine print. The Getty Images page for the photo, by photographer Raimund Linke, clearly states (now, at least) that the shot is of a replica statue in Las Vegas. If the website didn’t make the location of the statue clear when the postal service saw it, wouldn’t checking with Getty Images or Linke have been a good idea? No doubt the service would think so now.
The Gingrich site also highlights a third potential pitfall of stock shots: other people can use the same shots you do. This sometimes leads to memorable embarrassments: As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Gingrich crowd shot first appeared on a website for the late liberal democrat Ted Kennedy, accompanied by the phrase “we are the democratic majority.” The mind reels.
You can’t control who else uses stock images, so before you make your selection, ask yourself: What if your competitor, whether political or commercial, uses the same one? If that’s a concern, you may want to find an alternative to stock art.
In a perfect and well-funded world, stock art would never be needed. But the reality is that, from time to time, you will need to use it, and all too often when you’re on a critical deadline and can’t think clearly. Tread carefully: As my own use of stock art above demonstrates, here be dragons.
UPDATE – April 26: As Paul Conley pointed out today via Twitter, when a stock photo is reused by enough people, it morphs from an embarrassment into a meme, as in the curious case of the Everywhere Girl.