September 28, 2022 by Minal Bopaiah
August 31, 2022 by Kathy Lu
There is a good reason the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has become such a popular adage. Our brains are wired to process images in a fraction of a second—much faster than we process spoken or written words. The very rapid judgments, ideas, and assumptions that our brains instantly make about people based on the images we see play a powerful role in how we treat others, and how we get treated. Because of this, the images we put out into the world for others to see must be chosen and created with the utmost care. Whether you’re designing promotional materials for your station’s programming, choosing photos to represent your station’s staff, or sending email newsletters out to your community, choosing the right images is a critical part of being an inclusive organization.
Everyday, all of us see photos of people constantly—in social media, on websites, on television, in advertisements, in print, and in our daily environment. In many ways, the photos we see in the media have created our culture for us, and have defined the standards of who and what is supposedly good, normal, and valuable. However, the media is not as inclusive of everyone as it could be due to biases, prejudices, and stereotypes that have been passed down for generations. Because of this, the images we consume are not an accurate depiction of reality. The majority of the photos we see feature primarily white or light-skinned people who are typically young, attractive, and able-bodied. This archetype serves as the “default” person, or the main characters in many images. Most of us do not fit this description, and real people are much more diverse than what the media shows us. Minorities, people with disabilities, women, and other underrepresented groups are usually shown as supporting characters. Seeing images like these everywhere shapes our perceptions about the world and about who is important and who is not.
Images that are not representative of everyone are problematic because they perpetuate the deep inequalities of society. They can negatively affect how we see ourselves and our perceived worth if we don’t fit into the narrow “ideal” demographic that has been created for us.
It may seem like a daunting task to choose and create images that are more diverse and inclusive, and to push against this common “default,” but it doesn’t have to be difficult. A bit of extra effort and awareness can go a long way. If we as individuals commit to learning how to recognize our own biases and how to interrupt them, we can start to shift our culture one photo at a time. The more we showcase real people of all kinds in our photography, the more engaged our audiences will be in the content we create, and the more inclusive our culture will become.
With a bit of extra effort and care, it’s relatively easy to choose better photos that include more types of people. Here are a few guidelines to consider when choosing photos.
The first step is to start acknowledging our biases and to realize when and how they influence our actions. Every one of us has biases, most of which have been fed to us through our culture. Kat Holmes, author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, says that “For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly.” Particularly in public media, if we’re not careful about the images we choose, we may misrepresent people or cause harm to different groups. Before you start your search for the perfect photo, take a quick inventory of what kinds of photos typically appear first in the list of results for your search terms. Search online for images using terms like “pilot,” “person cleaning in the home,” or “leader of a meeting” and take a critical look at the results you see. Who do you see and how are they represented? Are they shown in a stereotypical way? Maybe the pilots are all white men and the people cleaning are all women. How many of the first photos that appear feature only white models? Do you see any images of people with disabilities? What types of people are missing altogether? The more you observe and analyze the photos you see in the media that’s all around us, the better you will become at recognizing how homogenous, predictable, and stereotypical they tend to be.
When choosing a photo, asking yourself some questions will help you more easily identify the groups of people you may be leaving out, recognize your own biases, and avoid stereotypes. Choose photos that intentionally feature different kinds of people who typically aren’t represented as the focus.
Each time you choose a group of photos for your station, this mental checklist can help ensure that you’ve included as wide a range of people as possible. If you realize that your photos do not include someone on the list below, you can do a targeted search for a photo that includes them. The checklist is also useful for identifying when your photos include too much of one group and not enough of another. It’s usually not possible to include someone from every single one of the categories below, but the more types of people represented, the better.
When searching for a photo, it’s tempting to use the first good one you see at the top of the page. But often the photos at the top of your search results will be the least diverse and will likely depict the cultural “default” of young, attractive, straight, able-bodied, and usually white. Get much better search results by using the filters available on the stock photo or database you’re using, and by typing in very specific search terms. For example, Shutterstock.com has ethnicity, age, and gender filters. The very first thing I do when searching for a photo is select all ethnicities except for Caucasian (white). This usually ensures that many more types of people will appear in the search results. White people will likely still be included in the images, but they will be supporting rather than main characters.
Another way to get better search results is to type in a very specific demographic that you have in mind. For example, if you run through the Demographic Checklist and realize that you haven’t included someone who is Hispanic, search for “Hispanic man smiling”. It may feel a bit uncomfortable to type in a specific race, ethnicity, gender, body type, or disability (I often use search terms like “wheelchair,” “blind person,” or “plus size man”) but it is necessary in order to ensure that you are featuring people who typically get overlooked.
It’s important to take the time to dig deep. Particularly in public media, people work quickly and production can move at lightning speeds. However, fast-paced environments can introduce bias unless we all slow down and be thoughtful about what we’re producing and the messages it may send to our audiences. When searching, look beyond just the first page of image results. I usually start by looking at the very last page of results first. The more photos you look at, the more kinds of people you will see in them. Commit to taking a few extra minutes to really choose one that is a great photo AND is inclusive. Once you find a photo you like, run it by someone different from you (ideally someone who has the same identity as the person featured in your photo) to get their feedback. For example, if you are a white woman and the subject of the photo is a Black woman, show the image to a Black colleague to get their reaction. This will help ensure that your choices are inclusive, and aren’t doing any unintended harm. Finding more inclusive images takes a bit more time and intention, but it matters.
Just because a photo includes many types of people doesn’t automatically mean that they are represented in an equitable way. Often the biases of photographers, photo editors, stock photo curators, and designers can show up in subtle ways. Choosing photos that may seem “diverse and inclusive” at first glance might actually be doing more harm than good. For example, the photo below depicts four people in a meeting. There are two men, and two women—both of whom are minorities. It seems relatively “diverse” if you describe it that way. When we take a closer look at the composition and focus of the photo, the white man is much larger and closer to us than the others, who are out of focus. The others, including both women who are the only non-white characters in the shot, are supporting characters to the white male main character. Additionally, the Black woman is seated, which positions her lower in the composition. This subtly indicates to the viewer that because she is lower and out of focus, she’s less important than the other people in the photo.
Although this is a quality photo with good lighting and color, I would not use it. Instead, I would find a similar image with a woman as the main character (ideally a woman who is also a minority) in the foreground or an image in which all of the people are roughly equal sizes and distances from the camera. This may seem like a subtle change, but it is small choices like this that have the power to shift our culture to be more inclusive.
I am often asked how to avoid images that reinforce stereotypes, and how to strike a balance between increasing representation of certain identities and tokenizing them. Many stereotypes may seem innocuous but they can do real, tangible harm. For example, I am particularly bothered by the common stereotype of absent Black fathers. The media constantly reinforces the false idea that Black men aren’t good dads to their kids, and my personal experience is very much the opposite of that. So, because our brains believe what they see in images, I like to intentionally find photos for my projects of Black dads playing with, cuddling, or supporting their kids. I believe this can directly impact how the viewer of these photos perceives Black men. The more often people see images that disprove a stereotype about a certain group, the more quickly it will dissolve.
Below is a list of inclusive stock photo websites full of free or affordable images of people.
Using these tips, you can start choosing photos for your station’s materials that challenge the status quo. Put your own discomfort aside (discomfort is okay!) and commit to finding better images that represent the vast array of identities in your audiences. “Images have a huge impact on imprinting and reinforcing our view of the world, and yet, most media professionals don’t spend half the time being as thoughtful about their images as they do about their words. Often, because of a lack of time and money, we look for the most cost-effective picture that ‘works,’ not examining how our use of a photo may be reinforcing harmful stereotypes.” says Minal Bopaiah in her article, The Paradox of Bias in Marketing and Fundraising. Make inclusive photography a priority at your organization, and communicate the value of it to your colleagues. Your audiences will appreciate it and it will make your brand materials much more engaging, interesting, and dynamic.
New to Greater Public? Create an account.