How stock images reveal hidden truths about cultural politics in America.
Over the last few months, I’ve seen Yasmin’s familiar face everywhere. On the front page of the Planned Parenthood website, in advertisements for Invisalign, in an episode of the woefully cancelled Selfie.
Yasmin’s not a friend, or a relative, or even someone with whom I once locked eyes during an awkward train conversation. I made her up back in August when I created a simulation of Tinder in an attempt to get at the class-, race-, and education-based reasons people swipe the way they swipe.
I found her image after an exhaustive stock image search. I chose her because she was ethnically ambiguous, beautiful, and laughing; I choose her because she had straight, white teeth; hair that seemed “fun” but didn’t signify as “too” ethnic.
I chose her, in other words, because her image connoted racial “otherness,” but bourgeois “sameness.” I chose her because I wanted to see how people reacted to her.
To build the simulation, I needed profiles, so I built my own: first by scouring Thinkstock, a stock image company owned by Getty Images, for a diverse range of images, then by putting those images through Instagram filters and photoshopping them into Tinder’s distinctive frame. The results looked like this:
The simulation, which included responses from 799 participants, revealed that, at least in this instance, race was irrevocably linked to class. It wasn’t that people didn’t find others of a certain race attractive; rather, they didn’t find people whose image suggested a lower class — specifically working class — attractive.
And none of my 50 made-up Tinder profiles exemplified this better than Yasmin, who received an 89% swipe yes rate — the highest of all female profiles, and 10% higher than her closest “competitor.”
I could’ve predicted that a woman who looked like Yasmin would have a fairly high swipe rate. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was just how much I’d see her around in the months afterwards. One of the first sightings came on this very website:
And then a reverse image search on Google revealed that Yasmin’s internet footprint was extensive:
Yasmin’s smile and hair suggest joy, even whimsicality. But plenty of other images are capable of conveying as much. What distinguishes Yasmin — what makes her attractive and, by extension, valuable — to so many companies looking for stock images is the same thing that made her attractive to so many participants in my survey: markers of race and class. Take this advertisement for “Arbors of Denton,” an apartment complex targeting students at the University of North Texas:
The images on the homepage are chosen to catch your eye as a potential leasee: You, you’re the type of person who’d ride a retro bike with an old camera around your neck! Or maybe you’re the type of person who will go on a magic hour walk with your boyfriend. You’re “Social, Inspired, Yourself.” The mode of address is ambiguously positive in a way that’s intended to hail basically everyone.
Which is why Yasmin’s inclusion in the collage is so perfect: The person holding the bike is white (undetermined gender), the couple in the magic hour is obscured (race unclear), and Yasmin’s race is ambiguous, not “too” anything. The design thus invites the viewer to see themselves literally at home here, whether you’re black, Latino, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, or mixed race.
Combine it with the hipster bike and camera and you’ve got a certain level of bourgeois capital — one that promises that “Home is truly sweet when you live in our luxury community.”
I mean, maybe:
According to Google Maps, Arbors of Denton looks a whole lot like the apartment complex where I lived during my first year of grad school in Austin, Texas. An apartment for which I signed the lease, sight unseen, in part because its website looked very similar to Arbors of Denton (in truth, it was a mix of graduate students who didn’t know just how far the apartments were from the cultural center of town and Latino families).
Most people probably sign leases at Arbors of Denton because it’s convenient, or their friends live there, or they like the pool. But part of their decision to visit in the first place is because it seems, at least from the website, like a place in which they would belong, or where their vision of their best selves (active, bourgeois, part of a multicultural community) would belong — a feeling for which Yasmin, in however subconscious a way, is absolutely responsible.
In this way, stock images like Yasmin’s serve an underestimated — if fairly basic — semiotic function, essential for brands, like Arbors of Denton, that need to convince consumers, vis-Ã -vis a website, that a product meshes with their (often aspirational) understanding of self.
This is all Advertising 101: People have been using cheerful, unthreatening, bourgeois-looking people to sell commodities of all kinds for the last 100 years. But Yasmin’s popularity in particular, as it applies to stock images, suggests that something has changed — that, in a relatively brief period of time, the representation of cheerful, unthreatening, and bourgeois have shifted in terms of race and ethnicity.
To try and prove this, I asked Getty Images for some of their top-selling images of the past seven years. Here’s what I found:
Take these two photos which, according to Getty Images, are representative of the top-selling “family” stock images from 2007 and 2014, respectively.
Just look at that amazing whiteness on the left! White shirts, khaki pants, jean shirts, WHITE PANTS — it’s like a master class in windblown Outer Banks artfully posed bourgeois-ness.
It’s also, according to Getty, so very 2007. Over the last seven years, sales of images of “multiethnic family units” have risen an incredible 75.4%. Thus the image on the right, which is quickly coded as “ethnic,” but still very much bourgeois: They might not be wearing crisp white shirts, but the interior of the home is well-lit and Pottery Barn lite; the clothes are lived in, but still solidly signifying of middle class.
With this change, however, how does an image like the one on the right attract a white consumer? Why would a brand that’s not targeting specific racial demographics use an image that isn’t white? (People of color have endured decades of brands advertising to them using bodies that don’t look like them; white people, not so much.)
The answer, I believe, has more to do with appealing to Americans’ ideal sense of “post-race” cultural politics. The brand thus hails a white person by representing not who they are (other white people), but an attitude of race-blindness (non-white people can be bourgeois too!).
Getty notes that images like the one the right, which seems far less posed and more “authentic,” are the future of stock imagery, which they attribute to the rise of “user-generated” imagery, aka Flickr and similar user-sourced sites. The more authentic-seeming the image, the more a consumer can relate — at least so goes the logic that has driven brand demand from stock image companies. The top-selling images from 2009 and 2014 for “same-sex couple” confirms this trend:
This shift explains, at least in part, why I chose Yasmin’s image for my simulation: She didn’t look like a stock image. Or, at least, she looked enough like a “real person” that a trip through Instagram filters might make her look like someone who’d actually show up on Tinder.
Now take a look at these photos of “senior men,” to use stock photo parlance. Again, the image on the left is representative of the best-selling image from 2007; the image on the right is one of the category best-sellers from 2014. Getty claims the shift is rooted in the boomer generation “redefining what it means to be old.” “They have economic stability and are less obligated to family,” Getty explained. “They are free to travel, to enthusiastically pursue hobbies, and are eager to start new careers, post retirement.” All of those realities are reflected in images like the one on the right, whose subjects look, according to Getty’s explanation, “vibrant and physically buoyant.”
Getty’s analysis isn’t wrong: The contemporary brand wants to hail the senior with the maximized version of their aspirational senior self.
But the image also reflects the ways in which retirement has become yet another space in which bourgeois, multicultural values have become the ideal. Modest retirement homes, like the one depicted on the left, are for people surviving on social security; surfing and stylish haircuts are for those who started a 401(k) early and still do a little consulting on the side. The “Greatest Generation” can disappear in piles of bad khaki pants; the Boomers are co-opting the high-expense hobbies of their bourgeois children. We’re heading over to Grandpa’s house just as soon as he’s done windsurfing.
Put differently, the picture on the left embraces a vision of retirement that meshes with that envisioned by ’50s consumerism: solidly, tastefully middle class. But bourgeois middle-class-ness is more than solidly middle class; it’s about taste. Cultural capital. Coolness. Clean lines. Well-fitted wetsuits. Faded yet still strongly held positions of generalized liberalism. Not just hanging out with other white people. Which is precisely the aspirational ideal manifest in the photo on the right. To be clear, most boomers aren’t living retirement that way — but they’d like to be hailed as people who are.
Stock images may seem banal, but they’ve never been apolitical. Indeed, the changes in depiction of family, intimacy, and age over the last seven years do suggest seemingly progressive advances in the way we conceive of all three. Black people can be bourgeois; gay people can cuddle; elderly people can be hip.
But at the same time, the images we embrace, whether in terms of stock photography, television shows, commercials, or billboards, often reflect ideals far more than reality. In this way, they hail through flattery: You are the sort of person who endorses this vision of life, even if you don’t work to make the changes, small or systemic, that would turn that vision into reality. You’d swipe yes on Yasmin, in other words, but would probably avoid a Ferguson rally; you totally have a black Facebook friend, but you’re not going to get in a spirited debate about the underrepresentation of people of color in the Fortune 500.
Which isn’t to say that images like the ones included here aren’t capable of enacting subtle yet significant change. To “count” in American society is to be visually represented; the more images of people of color, queer intimacy, and the elderly, the more they exist and, by extension, matter.
But as these photos suggest, the only raced, aged, or queer bodies that exist are those that also connote a very specific class position. The ultimate lesson of stock imagery thus becomes clear: In 2014, it’s OK to be not white, or gay, or over 60, but only if you’re not the one thing that capitalist America must elide. To matter in America, you can be so many things — so long as you’re not poor.