I wanted to write a blog post about stock photography, mainly as a place to work through thoughts I have for an upcoming project.
Stock photography is something I am familiar with through any normal means that any other person would recognise. Stock imagery has been a fundamental component within computing for over two decades now and the original source of my discovery. I mention that as potentially Microsoft’s Word package and the inclusion of Clip Art for posters, letter, essay etc was probably my first interaction with a stock image.
Today, obviously stock imagery has developed massively since those clip art days but essentially the premise has remained the same, an image which can be used by anyone for low or zero cost to represent their idea, business, service, product or any other multitude of uses.
Stock imagery typically consists of 1 to 3 main components; an object, a person and a location. There are dozens of variations upon that arrangement but the core components remain fairly consistent.
An object is usually some kind of signifier, a stapler, a stop sign, a green tick etc these signs often have multiple meaning associated with the which ensure effective communication of the purpose. The green tick of approval is very common but within that simple sign there is an almost limitless combinations of design elements to consider, style, colour, direction, placement and size. Each variable affecting the end result asa small black typeset tick on a checklist is different to a large green stylistic tick across a whole screen.
The inclusion of a person or multiple people also has a similar level of complexity and signification. From the idea of creating a sense of humanity to the advertising goals of displaying the idealised results of a products use. Each character within a stock photography serves a purpose and a role usually heavily emphasising preconceptions fo gender, clothing, equipment and status to communicate the images intentions. A hard hat for construction, safety goggles for science, people of colour for diversity, each element carefully selected to trigger a spectators response.
The location is equally important in setting the context of the stock image. Rather than being a direct signifier, the location is a tool to ground and solidify the object and persons perception. The builder in a desert would potentially conflict but on a construction site it consolidates the illusion. A scientist in a bathroom has a totally different meaning than one pictured in a laboratory.
The challenge in the creation of stock photography’s that all three elements must work to together to fulfil the intentions of the stakeholders. Leading to the second challenge, the image must achieve this cohesion with the most generic of resources.
In the creation of stock photography I feel that there are four main stakeholders;
The interests of these stakeholders are remarkably similar, I would posit making money is their main concern.
The photographer, typically of freelance basis, is creating images outside of the usual premise. They are typically not directly commissioned for the work, they hire models and equipment of their own volition and are also dependant on the whims of trends in order to get their work seen and purchased. Their reliance is on the effectiveness of the agency to realise their potential income.
The model similar to the photographer is typically freelance but here they are commissioned by the photographer for a purpose, that to play the role required.
The commissioner, I chose that term to apply to anyone purchasing a stock image, is essentially the person at the top of the power tree in this relationship. Their only commitment is that of the final purchase. They are limited only be the size of the image library and it’s ability to accurately fulfil their perceived needs.
The agency, here used to describe the stock image provider, whilst dependent on the output of the photographer for its continued growth and adaptability t market needs, is essentially the gate keeper between the client, commissioner, and the photographer. They have a marginal financial risk but stand t again the most through image sales.
having briefly outlined the stakeholders I wish to refer back to the statement that the end goal is financial.
Each stake holder is creating, storing, displaying and distributing images in the hope of garnering a financial return for the investment. The model requires a portfolio to attract potential roles, the photographer displays that image in the hop that the agency can sell it on their behalf and the commissioner buys that image in the hope that it forms part of a campaign to sell their product or service.
The price paid for that image is set by the agency depending on several mundane measures such as quality, size and demand. the commissioner pays more for a larger image than a smaller one regardless of complexity of production unless determined by the agency.
The stock image industry is in a way a micro capitalistic economy. Which shares with the general principles of capitalism a disproportionate amount of risk and rewards dependent on the role within that economy.
Where we see each take holder has a financial investment into the production of a stock image we also see a diminishing investment on each tier which also corresponds with a demising risk to the stake holder.
One could argue that the commissioner investing £300+ into a single image is taking a risk, which they are, but in comparison we have the type of risk change and increase as we progress down the chain of production.
The agency has the investment cost of building a storage and display platform for the images they wish to sell. This is a significant financial investment into a technology which relies on the quantity and diversity of option to succeed. However, the agency does not finance the creation of images directly, only recompensing the photographer upon sale. If a certain image doesn’t sell the agency loses nothing as they have a vast library from which a commissioner can chose.
The photographer has a significant investment in to the purchase or hire of a studio, equipment, model, props and potential products all of which must be financed regardless of the outcome of the images. This risk is merely for the privilege to by found within a vast multitude of other similar images in the database. For the photographer the success of their images depends heavily on the ability of the agency to promote the image which is also linked to the photographer ability to create attractive relevant images as well as understand a complex tagging and search protocol.
The model is, in essence, inputting no financial risk into the process. they complete the work and get paid for their time. They are however at greatest risk of mis-representation, a risk which could be career ending or worse depending on the situation. By presenting themselves as the face of an unknown company they are by association trusting in the unknown company to utilise their likeness in a fair and considered manner. Whilst the goal for the model is to make money and build a portfolio, that portfolio and it’s potential to generate further work is dependent on every other stakeholder. That is not to consider the effects to their public persona and relationships in the case of mis-representation or as we have seen recently, re-appropriation through social media into other contexts or narratives.
What interests me about stock photography is how it is simultaneously a tool which for models and photographers can be a relatively easy form of marketing, portfolio building and potentially earning it is also the harbinger of their success. Both model and photographer can be typecast, vilified or potentially successful, to differing degrees through the power of the agency. The agency which by soliciting the submission of work without employing anyone can promote, supplement or outright deny existence of stakeholders if required. A powerful tool of denial which cannot be afforded to those who’s face is literally on the advert.
Similarly this denial is another positive for the commissioner. The reap the benefits of no production time, low cost and distance to utilise the stock image in their business.
One final issue with stock photography, one which is more of a personal note, is that of the generic nature of the image.
For the business model adopted by stock photography providers to succeed, they must be able to provide to the widest possible array of commissioners. This means huge selections of images that can be applicable and tailorable to several different sectors and hundreds of independent businesses. In the quest to provide an image which has the most potential uses and sales the images has to be devoid of any significant identifiers which conflict with a commissioners brief.
Commissioner A always has staff in blue shirts where as Commissioner B always has them in white, a simple issue to fix in post production but one which when not provided for can be an instant dismissal, but even more so if the image were to contain a business logo, bad practice, or location not in keeping with the commissioners area of provision.
This results in images which lack humanity, connection or meaning (ignoring that lack of meaning is meaning). The end goal is an image which absorbs it’s context from the commissioners placement.
Stock photography has developed an almost uniform aesthetic, one which aims to inject drama and interest in the hope of not only standing out t the commissioner but will prove effective for them and encourage a return purchase. As each stylistic choice develops and succeeds the agency lends preferential treatment to the style in search results resulting in a growing trend of photographers ageing the look in order to stay relevant. The antithesis of individual creative voice the production factory of stock images never stops to consider the impact of those changes, the personalisation of the commissioner or the personal development and satisfaction of the photographer and model.
I understand and see the need for stock images. the global market is fast moving and heavily internet dependent. The need for ever changing, engaging, cost effective and timely images ensures the success of stock imagery as a business. I personally find that the visual language of stock imagery is easily identified and has become and indicator of a small business with no personality rather than the intended effect of high quality images with large diverse teams. I also find the potential risk to personal representation troublesome. The drive towards inclusion in all aspects of life has not driven businesses to chose hire, and photograph their own improvements in representation but o simply buy the impression of diversity from a stock image provider. This demand has generated need for more diverse images but in fulfilling that demand the tropes have developed on having generic 5 people groups with each being a different skin tone or culture, regardless of the actual diversity of the locale or business. It’s hard to find a group fo office workers were one wears a suits and the other chose religious or cultural dress, instead everyone is typecast into a western role.