Why I Never Use Stock Photos of White People

Let’s decenter the narrative.

I love that Unsplash and Pixabay and other free image websites resources are available for use. But I have noticed something pretty disturbing —it’s hard to find pictures I want without white people.

If I want to use a photo of a person, and I cannot find a picture of a person of color, I will use photos of animals or images that are racially ambiguous. And I am determined to keep it this way.

Representation matters.

While the representation of people of color has improved in the media, we are constantly bombarded by TV shows and films with white protagonists.

According to the 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA, white people are represented in 77% in top film roles, with black people at 9%, and Latinos at 5.2%. In top broadcast TV, white people are in 63.3% of roles, and, in top cable TV roles, 71.8%. This is actually an overall improvement from previous years.

I remember growing up watching The Cosby Show, ecstatic that, while I wasn’t black, at least someone that kind of looked like me had a place in television. I also remember watching my favorite Meg Ryan rom-coms thinking I would never have a cute romantic story to tell because I wasn’t white.

This makes me wonder how many other little kids of color are watching TV and films and wondering if their lives could look a certain way or if they even have a chance.

Representation matters, but it’s not everything.

The centrality of whiteness.

Why is it that “normal” is synonymous to white? When I searched “family” on Unsplash, nearly every picture of individuals with a discernable race was white (and straight). Is that the only way family looks?

Whiteness (plus being heterosexual and able-bodied) dominate the narratives of our lives. White heteronormativity is in the center, with the margins grasping for recognition. And worse, it is embedded into structures around us.

Colonization is the foundation of our world today. It has permeated history since the 15th century, and its effects are devastating. It has created racial divisions, socioeconomic inequities, and borders to distinguish “us” from “them.”

In the colonial context the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man’s values.— Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth

If this is how our nations and economic systems were structured, it’s no surprise that whiteness is normalized. It’s no surprise that there are racial stratifications nor that to reduce these divisions, people of color have to rise and fight for it. If they didn’t, would there be any progress?

Perhaps this is all a bit dramatic for an article about stock photos. But I merely present this history to demonstrate the pervasive relationship between race and power.

Stock photos are not just pictures. They are symbols for normalcy and assumptions of what’s ordinary. They are subliminal images we use as our lens when reading a story. It affects you whether you know it or not.

The trouble with what we don’t know.

Sometimes the subconscious ends up revealing itself in ways we don’t even realize. Naturally, this results in microaggressions. Racism can be overt and disgusting, but it can also be subtle. I always wonder which is worse. To be overtly profiled because of your race or to be unintentionally discriminated by someone you consider a friend? And if you confront someone about it, you have to teach them and/or defend yourself.

Subconscious and unconscious beliefs drive our impulsive reactions. Our environment shapes them, but they can change with effort and a willingness to feel uncomfortable.

Evaluate your environments. Take stock of the TV shows you watch, the films you enjoy, and the books you read. Read books by women of color for a year and see how it changes your perspective.

Now, I understand that it would be weird to use images of people of color if you are not a person of color. It can be a blatant misrepresentation of your story. For me, that’s not the case. However, I do think there are several types of stories where the race of the individual in a picture is not central to your topic. These are the instances you can reconsider your choices.

Be more conscious when you see images. If you need to use stock photos, think of who you center. Think of why you are centering them. And most importantly, think of how you can change the narrative.

Nisha Mody is a writer that works as a Librarian and has also worked as a Consultant, Recruiter, and Speech Therapist. Find her on Twitter and Instagram. But most importantly, adore her beautiful sister cats.