Image banks like Getty Images and Shutterstock that sell ready-to-use ‘stock’ photographs online have become the visual backbone of advertising, branding, publishing, and journalism. Also, daily exposure to stock images has increased exponentially with the rise of social networking and the generic visuals used in lifestyle articles and ‘clickbait’ posts. The stock imagery business has become a global industry through recent developments in e-commerce, copyright and social media (Glückler & Panitz, 2013).
However, stock images are most often overlooked rather than looked at—both by ‘ordinary’ people in the contexts of their everyday lives and by scholars, who have rarely taken an interest in this industry and genre in its own right. There are some notable exceptions, dating back to the ‘pre-Internet’ era of stock photography, like Paul Frosh’s work on the ‘visual content industry’ in the early 2000s or David Machin’s critical analysis of stock imagery as the ‘world’s visual language’ (Frosh, 2003; Machin, 2004). As a whole, and compared to other media and communication industries, research on online image banks and digital stock imagery is virtually uncharted territory.
Why, then, should stock images be ascribed any significance or power since people do not particularly pay attention to them? Stock images are not only the ‘wallpaper’ of consumer culture (Frosh, 2003 and 2013); they are also central to the ambient image environment that defines our visual world, which is now increasingly digital and global while also remaining very much analogue and local (just think of your own encounters with such imagery at your bank branch, at your dentist or beauty salon, or on billboards in city streets). Pre-produced images are the raw material for the world’s visual media.
And yet, public debate on stock imagery remains both very limited and largely dismissive. Often derided as being patently fake and outrageously cliché, in recent years stock photography has become regular fodder for a variety of scornful media commentaries on the role and uses of commercial photography in contemporary communication. From humorous collections of images of women laughing alone with salad or digital tablets (Grossman, 2014) to tongue-in-cheek exposés on the use of inauthentic images of ordinary citizens in political campaign ads (Hooton, 2014), bloggers and social media journalists have relished producing scathing critiques of the generic, ready-to-use photographs that can be purchased from online image banks. In a similar vein, news media have been in the spotlight in relation to questionable uses of stock images for the purposes of in-depth journalism. For example, in 2014 the Daily Mirror sparked a debate among journalists in The Guardian and The Independent for using a stock portrait of a weeping child for a front-page splash on the alarming growth of food banks in the UK (Burrell, 2014; Tooth, 2014).
Ultimately, commercial images, and stock photographs in particular, are essential to how people engage with media content both online and offline—across genres, platforms, and borders.
The multiple pathways of methodology
As a scholar with an interest in the relationship between visual communication and globalization, I have been researching stock photography both as a global industry and as a visual genre. In my research I draw from Gillian Rose’s approach to the notion of visual economy, or the idea that any given “field of images is organised” (Rose, 2010, p. 61), is embedded in complex, specific and diverse “social relations, practices and institutions” (p. 62), and entails an “exchange of material goods” (p. 61). This also means that I am interested in the structures and inequalities that set apart the global marketplace of pre-produced imagery, the ways in which stock images are made and distributed, how they are shared and used across media outlets, and both the identities and narratives that they represent. As a whole, I am committed to generating insights into how generic images may in fact shape specific ‘ways of seeing’ and how this may tell us something important about how power works through a global, or at least globalizing, imagination.
Being a social semiotician both by training and by passion, I am especially keen on linking texts with practices to better understand how and why visual imagery comes to be the way it is, and how the ‘rules’ or ‘conventions’ that are characteristic of particular types of visual communication shape and are shaped by broader political and cultural economies (Jewitt & Oyama, 2001; Van Leeuwen, 2005). Through this approach, I have examined a range of visual communication genres, including international airline branding (Thurlow & Aiello, 2007), documentary photography (Aiello, 2012), and data visualization (Kennedy et al., 2016). From a methodological standpoint this also means that I tend to adopt a multi-sited approach to ethnographic research, rooted in the work of anthropologists of globalization like George Marcus (1995) and Ulf Hannerz (2002 and 2003). Rather than being grounded in an in-depth study of a particular locale or community, multi-sited ethnography often focuses on “a topic, which is significantly translocal, not to be confined within some single place” (Hannerz, 2003, p. 206). From this perspective, one of the main tasks of the ethnographer is to trace the pathways followed by people, things, metaphors, stories, biographies, or conflicts. My own focus and object of study is a semiotic and overall “cultural formation, produced in several different locales” (Marcus, 1995, p. 99). Hence, in this kind of research one of the main challenges is to pin down both the texts and the practices associated with such formation. As Marcus (1995, p. 108) writes:
When the thing traced is within the realm of discourse and modes of thought, then the circulation of signs, symbols, and metaphors guides the design of ethnography. This mode involves trying to trace the social correlates and groundings of associations that are most clearly alive in language use and print or visual media.
In other words, in my work I follow visual traces, which are increasingly, though not exclusively digital, and are just as pervasive as they are elusive. ‘Tracing’ the texts and practices associated with stock photography comes with particular issues in matters of research design, which mostly have to do with the opaque nature of corporate structures, the diffuse configuration of image production and use, and the atomized identities of the professionals that converge to this industry—and in particular of photographers, who are always freelance and almost never invested in their ‘status’ as stock photographers, to the extent that using a pseudonym for one’s presence in stock image banks is fairly common practice.
Tracing texts and practices
Through my EU-funded project “Globalization, Visual Communication, Difference”, I have begun tackling these issues by undertaking research both on the visual texts and image-making practices that set apart the contemporary visual content industry. First, I have looked into how stock imagery represents gender and sexual difference ‘generically’ (Aiello, 2013) and, conversely, how feminist theory and transgender politics are harnessed in the production and promotion of newer and allegedly also more diverse and inclusive trends in commercial imagery (Aiello & Woodhouse, 2016). This strand of research has led me not only to focus on a content and social semiotic analysis of images in their own right, but also to examine how images circulate across different media outlets and are recontexualized in other media texts like, for example, lifestyle articles in news media. These are both particularly important aspects of meaning-making in relation to this particular genre of visual communication, given the conceptual, flexible and reusable nature of these images.
Last January, I was invited to participate in Richard Rogers’ Digital Methods Winter School at the University of Amsterdam with my ongoing project on the Getty Images Lean In Collection, a curated collection of stock photographs that aim “to shift perceptions, overturn clichés, and incorporate authentic images of women into media and advertising” (LeanIn.org). With help from a group of students and thanks to the invaluable digital methods and visualization expertise of researchers like Erik Borra, Donato Ricci and Federica Bardelli, I was able to start thinking through some of the methodological tools and issues that underlie an analysis of stock images’ circulation and recontextualization. We wanted to find out where some of the ‘top’ images from the Lean In Collection ended up ‘living’ (Figure 1) and how they were used to illustrate media articles on different topics and themes. While a detailed explanation of the process that we followed and the limitations that we faced (including several glitches when using tools like the Google Reverse Image scraper) can be found on the project’s page, it is worth emphasizing that there are both great obstacles and promises to this kind of research. For one thing, because of the sheer amount of the ‘traces’ that are left by stock images across media outlets, it is truly difficult to sample stock images according to ‘best results’ principles. Hence, the methods and findings that we generated during that week are by no means definitive and, in fact Erik, Donato, Federica and I are working together to redesign and re-execute the project. On the other hand, this approach promises to offer valuable insights into the worldwide dissemination of images that do not specifically originate from social media but which do end up being used across a variety of social networking platforms (see Highfield & Leaver, 2016).
Second, and concurrently with my first strand of research, I have engaged directly with the main interface between the industry and the images themselves, i.e. stock photographers. Between 2012 and 2015 I interviewed 40 photographers whose commercial imagery was licensed through Getty Images. In terms of physical location, I decided to focus mostly on London and New York, as these two cities are also major global hubs for this industry (and in fact most media and communication industries).
To find my interviewees, I built a database of professional photographers’ websites from the bottom-up. I ran searches of both ‘London’ and ‘New York’ as keywords in the Getty Images search engine and compiled a list of photographers who seemed to be working predominantly in these two cities. I then contacted them through their professional websites or Flickr accounts (at the time Getty Images had a partnership with Flickr to source and license imagery made by ‘keen amateurs’).
During my field research, I spent time in Shoreditch and Parsons Green studios in London, where high-profile professional photographers stage shoots with both models and animals—the latter being dogs for the most part, with the occasional reindeer for Christmas-themed sets. In New York, I met with photographers who use their small Manhattan apartments as sets for beauty shoots or candid family photos, which also means that their homes are lit, furnished and arranged in ways that look ‘appropriate’ for stock images. I also had my fair share of meetings with photographers in coffee shops, co-working spaces, or in their kitchens and living rooms, where many of them carried out most of the tasks that are typical of this business, like editing and post-production but also book-keeping. Often stock photographers are also art or documentary photographers, part-time teachers, and fathers and husbands who work from home while providing childcare. There still seems to be a prevalence of men in this profession, but I also met quite a few women.
Because of the diversity of my interviewees and the exploratory nature of this research, I decided to keep the interviews fairly conversational and open-ended, while also structuring them according to three main areas of recollection and reflection: a) each interviewee’s personal background and biography as a photographer; b) each interviewee’s personal history, experience and perspective in relation to stock photography in general and Getty Images in particular; and c) each interviewee’s stories, memories and feelings about the images that they license through the Getty Images website.
This approach proved to work particularly well, as photographers were first of all able to self-report on their personal trajectory and parallel projects and were then also able to locate themselves and their work within this genre and industry while also expressing their opinions on both. As Hannerz (2003) explains, ethnographic research on “settings of modernity” (p. 209) is challenging, insofar as people engage in activities that “may be monotonous, isolated, and difficult to access” (p. 211) and often “spend hours alone at a desk, perhaps concentrating on a computer screen” (p. 211). For this reason, guided forms of open-ended self-reporting are fundamental here. What proved to be particularly productive, however, was eliciting photographers’ responses about the photographs they uploaded to the Getty Images website.
For example, for my study on the representation of lesbians in stock photography I interviewed various photographers on particular images made by them that had been given ‘lesbian’ as one of their keywords (Aiello, 2013). From their direct engagement with the images themselves as my primary object of study (Figure 2), I learned about how stock photographers plan shoots so that they can obtain different combinations of people and saleable concepts as efficiently and economically as possible. As one photographer explained:
“I was working with a group. Both two guys together, two girls together, then all mingling. I was trying to get as many different combinations as possible, but homosexuality did not come into my frame. There was not a relationship, not in my mind shooting it.”
When I asked another photographer to select a photo that had a particularly interesting ‘story’ from his own Getty Images collection, he picked a very bland though very well-executed image of a piece of Swiss cheese. He then explained to me that because that particular image had been selling well, he wanted for it to appear in the first or second page of a website search with the keyword ‘cheese’. But because he found Getty’s search algorithm to be unintelligible if not unpredictable, he kept uploading different versions of the same image – something that is technically prohibited – to ‘play’ the system and ensure that at any given point at least one of his images of Swiss cheese would appear closer to the top.
Just by asking these photographers to engage with some of their own images, I was able to learn about some of the key work strategies and business tactics found in this profession. And, naturally, a particular problem in this kind of research is that systematic participant observation is rarely possible. Therefore, interviewing image-makers through elicitation methods that push them to engage directly with the concrete outcomes of their work is especially fruitful.
No matter what the current challenges of the research that I have just described are, including the fact that there is not much scholarship on this industry and genre at all, it is vital to continue tracing both its texts and practices, and to extend our attention toward use and reception as well. Whether it is because of its poor quality, extreme blandness, lack of veracity, or exploitative cheapness, stock imagery is frequently discounted as insignificant and rarely taken seriously. This said, our everyday encounters with images – on the Internet, through print media, and in public space – are largely linked to only a handful of visual content providers. Among these, Getty Images is still the undisputed global leader, with customers in 100 countries and an archive of over 80 million images. In spite of all current emphasis on user-generated imagery as a dominant mode of communication in contemporary visual culture, we quite literally swim in an ocean of images that were made for and are distributed by very few big corporations. Therefore I hope that we keep taking stock of where this pre-produced and ready-to-use imagination leads us, both culturally and politically.
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