In 2007, the top selling image at stock photo agency Getty was a shot of a naked model lying on a beauty treatment table covered by sheets. Last year the most popular image was a freckled female on a train, fully clothed, looking out of the window. “So you have a shift from a passive, objectified woman to a woman who is going on a journey and feels like the protagonist of her own story,” says Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty. “We’ve started noticing that images of women with agency, or who appear to be in positions of leadership, are selling better each year.”
But can stock photography really answer this call for real, aspirational representations of women, and do these types of stock photo trends have the potential to simply become their own memes? Will Women Laughing Alone With Salad become Still Life With Smartphone and Women Climbing Ladders turn into Women On Transport? Cynics may suggest that stereotypes are being replaced with yet more predictable visual metaphors. However, with the most searched term at the agency being ‘woman’, and ‘business’ being second on the list, there’s certainly potential for Getty, and the wider industry, to play a bigger part in helping to inspire change around the visual culture of contemporary life.
In February, Getty Images announced a new partnership with LeanIn.org, the non-profit organisation founded by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Together they have created the Lean In Collection, made up of nearly 3,000 stock photos – drawing from Getty’s extensive 150 million images alongside new work – with the aim of creating “a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them”. A portion of the profit will also go to two grants in editorial and creative photography for original work focusing on women, girls, and their families and communities.
The initiative is particularly relevant now, with the global surge in image-based communication, as the world becomes more digital and connected online, with studies suggesting women to be the primary users of social media, especially image-rich platforms. “Through smartphones and sharing sites, they’re able to create pictures of themselves, and redefine standards of beauty simply by rendering themselves visible. And visibility is power,” says Grossman. “They’re also celebrating themselves, and sharing pictures that are goofy at times, or unvarnished or imperfectly composed. And it’s incredibly refreshing and, I would argue, empowering.”
Grossman believes this to be key in affecting popular stock trends, perceiving an aggressive shift toward images that are more authentic. “Models are becoming more diverse on all levels, from body types to backgrounds to ages,” she says. “We’re collectively gravitating toward imagery that has patina and texture. So-called ‘mistakes’ are more readily embraced, even encouraged.”
At a recent Curve Live event hosted by Getty, Lee Coventry, senior art director at Getty, remarked on a new aesthetic trend of the “perfectly imperfect”. Brands are recognising the powerful nature of a particular type of imagery, increasingly valued for its relation to a new obsession with documenting life, sharing ‘moments’, and telling stories through social media, as real life is on display like never before. The aesthetic moves away from polished and posed, towards natural and simple, with, for example, softer colours (closer to what we see with our eyes), rather than harsh contrasts, over-saturated colours and fake skin tones. “Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a real moment and a fabricated real moment, which is a testament to how influential and how powerful this style is. We really connect with visual cues that we believe to be real,” Coventry says. “But it will be interesting to see where that goes, if there is a backlash against this kind of mimicry.”
Commercial photography consultant Zoe Wishaw has similarly noticed an increased “craving to represent real life that captures a meaningful reality and emotion but that still successfully communicates an idea”, in part because brands need to meet the demands of consumer-product relationships based in empathy and experience, with “a move away from excess and luxury towards slices of real life”.
Grossman joined forces with Jessica Bennett, contributing editor at LeanIn.org, and a team, to curate the collection, which was overseen by Sandberg and Getty’s senior art directors. “It was important to us that the images feel both relatable and aspirational, and showed women and girls who feel like the centre of gravity in the images,” says Grossman. But where do you even begin when it comes to representing and empowering the whole of womanhood? “We wanted to make sure that the collection felt diverse, inclusive, and global,” she says.
“We have images of female business leaders, factory workers, engineers, students, teachers, beer brewers, athletes; women in their 80s and new-borns of every ethnicity; images of same-sex partnerships, women with fuller figures, differently-abled bodies, you name it. And we were careful to also include images of involved, nurturing fathers and collaborative male colleagues, because so much of envisioning a more equal world means showing what that might look like from a male perspective.”
It is certainly a noble start, but “literally trying to change the visual fabric of the world” as Grossman puts it, is a tall order. Christina Vaughn, founder and CEO of Image Source, praised the project, but remarked: “Search for ‘woman’ on any site and see the search results – it highlights the enormous challenge we have with this type of issue. A collection of images edited to show positive portraits of women is a first step, but until one removes all remaining poor representation, changing the sexism in stock across all images will always be a pretty hard claim to make.” Vaughn also notes that in the main these representations aren’t necessarily industry-wide. “Amongst art-directed photography you will find more considered, thought-through portrayals of women, but in lower-end microstock you find the popular perception of ‘stocky’ stereotypes,” she says. “Sadly the whole industry gets tarred with the same brush.”
When it comes to the question of whether the collection will really work in terms of client choice, Grossman has stated that at this stage no images will be removed from the wider library, relying in part on the fact that “older images naturally migrate lower in search results”, and that “the best way to encourage them is to make those images easier for them to find, and to keep creating new ones”. The crux of it appears to lie in expanding options rather than condemning anything. But is this enough?
Interestingly, in a Google Hangout between Bennett and Grossman a few weeks after the launch, Bennett said, “I almost think of this collection in some way as a shaming mechanism, because now it exists, and if you subscribe to Getty Images, which most large agencies and media outlets do, then you have no excuse not to search the Lean In collection when you are looking for an image of a woman.” And indeed, much of the process of change will be down to editorial decisions, the ad execs and art directors. And so the problem is wider still, with recent reports suggesting that as little as 3% of creative directors are female, and positions of power in the media remain male-dominated.
Vaughn recognises the problem all too well, with briefs often applying the key words for change, but falling short when it comes to final decisions by key players. “We have clients who call for ‘authentic’ images,” she says. “But then call back to say ‘I was looking for something more produced, not that authentic’.”
Time and again we are told that the average person is exposed to several thousand marketing messages and images a day, and although these guestimates include many that we are unlikely to even notice, paying attention to the wider visual landscape is all part of the process for the stock industry. A large part of what Grossman’s team does includes looking at top news stories, most popular ads, TV shows and films. “The rise of the heroine – and anti-heroine – over the past few years is undeniable. To me, Lena Dunham, Hillary Clinton, Pussy Riot, and Katniss Everdeen are all facets of the same crystal,” she says.
The collection has ambitious aims, long overdue but vital for the industry, however there remains a sense of familiar engineered authenticity, and predictably there are still women in front of computers with babies. Could this just be the next chapter in how to be a feminist according to stock photography? Let’s hope not, because whether it’s part social movement or part PR pledge, there’s no doubt that the impact of Getty and LeanIn.org joining together has helped amplify the global debate around positive female imagery.