Why Asian Stock Photos Matter

There’s a stock photo you don’t see every day

Picture this. You’re writing an article, and you need a photo to go with it. That’s no issue – a simple Google search and you’ll have thousands to choose from.

Nothing remarkable, right?

Now think about that situation again. How many of those stock photos featured Asians, or other people of colour?

Even in a time when more and more corporates are embracing inclusivity, Asians are woefully underrepresented in stock photos. And that has its roots in the very beginnings of commercial colour photography. When Kodak first started rolling out colour film in the 1930s, it was obvious who it was made for. The film was developed using chemicals which clearly rendered lighter skin tones, but failed for darker or yellowish ones. The model photos, called Shirley cards, used as references when developing film were white.

The original Shirley card, left, is contrasted with the multiracial Shirley card, right, that was introduced in the 1970s. Prior to this, little attention was given to non-white skin tones in photography. Images from the New York Times.

This meant that Kodak’s white models were photographed in cutting-edge detail, while Asians were reduced to yellowish smears. It wasn’t until the 1970s that colour film was improved to work for Asians and other minorities – and the effects of this have lasted. For the longest time, the default stock photos have been of white people.

But in the digital age, we find ourselves faced with a new conundrum. The problem is no longer one of availability – the same Google search you did earlier, when tweaked to include the word ‘Asian’ would undoubtedly yield page after page of photos of Asian people. No, the problem is the need for the keyword ‘Asian’. That whiteness is the default, and that anything else is a deviation from the norm. 

This is a major problem, and its repercussions aren’t limited to stock photographers. We see stock photos everywhere, and they influence the way we think as a society.

Even worse than underrepresentation, though, are stereotypes. Granted, we have made leaps and bounds forward from many of the outrightly racist Asian stereotypes of the last century (think Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But they are by no means behind us entirely. And many common stock photos of Asians feature doctors or students. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a stock photo of a normal Asian family just relaxing at a barbecue?

Asian stereotyping has become a very relevant issue today. The novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, last year, and many unjustly blame Asians for it. Stereotypes of Asians as dirty and uncivilized are rife. The misuse of stock photography plays a key role in this.

An image from a New York Post article about the first coronavirus case in Manhattan.

As death tolls rise and the world panics, news companies are irresponsibly using stock photos of Asians in masks when reporting on the coronavirus. This ingrains those toxic stereotypes, and makes the situation even worse.

The way forward

The first step to progress is always recognizing that there is a problem. We need more Asian stock photos, because Asians are a beautiful, diverse group of people who aren’t represented nearly enough in the media (or, if they are, it is often in detrimental ways). Because the presence of Asian stock photos isn’t enough – we need to make racially diverse stock photos the norm.

Top view scene of Asian and Multi ethnic Business people with casual suit standing and Hand coordination with happy action for teamwork in the modern workplace

We should be celebrating diversity, not suppressing it.

Being mindful of our inclusion practices is important for everyone, and especially so for stock photo companies. Often, we are providing the faces that society associates with an issue. It is essential to constantly ask ourselves if we are being fair, and if we are being accurate. Often, the most dangerous types of racism are subconscious and manifest in subtle ways. And while it may be difficult to confront the biases within ourselves, it is necessary to do so. It is only then that we can collectively tear down stereotypes.

Think back to that Google search for a photo. If we want to start seeing more diverse faces there, we need to actively start using more diverse stock photos.

This is why Klaud9 is committed to Asian stock photography. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, and we need to make our pictures count towards positive social change.

Article by Aarushi Dahiya

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