When It Comes to Photos at News Outlets, the Devil Is in the Details

Photo editors help erase certain groups from the narrative just by selecting the wrong image.

[Photo: Shonte Daniels.]
We know good images are central to getting clicks, but if we want to use images that represent the population in this country, where do we find these images? Shonte Daniels / Rewire

As an editorial associate at Rewire, my job focuses primarily on finding appropriate and eye-catching photos for our articles. I’ve worked as a photo researcher for more than three years, and despite the increase in photo resources, finding the right image for a piece still can be extremely difficult. There are so many sites, but too many tell the same false narrative: The white person without visible disabilities is the default.

Stock photography has certainly improved and expanded since I first started working in photo research, and I’m grateful for the ways sites are moving to include illustrations as well. But there’s still so much work to be done, especially when it comes to representations of LGBTQ people, Native people, and persons with disabilities.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans find their news through social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube, according to the Pew Research Center. Facebook’s News Feed, while rightly criticized for its mishandling of fabricated stories, is still the most popular social media platform to learn about current topics. And while headlines are certainly an important factor in whether or not someone will read an article, the accompanying image can also attract more readers. In a world of GIFs and viral videos, it’s difficult to deny the impact of a good image.

But photos can also help reinforce harmful stereotypes or provide inaccurate depictions of real things. For example, using a photo of a baby or a pregnant person in their third trimester for an article about abortion is most often factually inaccurate, given that the majority of abortions take place during the first trimester. Luckily, campaigns like The Inevitable Preggobelly worked to show the many times publications inaccurately used these belly-centric photos, but they are  unfortunately still a common occurrence.

Race plays a large role in this as well; racist billboards have been used for years to target and shame Black, Latino, and Asian people for having abortions. This is why it’s important to combat these toxic depictions of certain populations with more accurate, ordinary depictions of people of color in their everyday life. Many news articles at Rewire are about some form of structural inequality. So when we have good news or solutions-based stories to publish, I try to make sure the photo is one of a person representing a population that’s often demonized in the media, like people of color, to demonstrate that not every story needs to be about their plight.

We know good images are central to getting clicks, but if we want to use images that represent the population in this country, where do we find these images? It’s not easy. Try it out: Look up a photo of a pregnant person on Shutterstock. What do you see? Are most of the photos of cisgender white women, typically with a close-up of their stomachs? Yeah, that’s not enough for our purposes. Sure, there are times where a picture of a pregnant woman mere days before her due date may be the perfect photo. But those photos often do not work in articles about the criminalization of pregnant people, or about non-cis white women and abortion—topics Rewire reports on regularly.

New photo stock sites like Nappy, #WOCinTech, and Tonl can help fill the void of people of color in stock photos, but so much needs to be done with other underrepresented communities.

For Elliot Long’s piece about being a transgender parent and identifying as “Baba” rather than “Mama” or “Dada,” I struggled with finding a good photo that showed families like Long’s. This struggle for representation extends beyond my job—but my job can have an effect on it. As Long states in his piece, “the hardest thing about queer parenting has been helping my own son, now 2-and-a-half years old, navigate a culture that places supreme value on mommies and daddies and makes anything else, like babas, like me, invisible.” Photo editors help erase certain groups from the narrative just by selecting the wrong image.

Quality photos are also lacking in people with disabilities. Placing a photo of a person in a wheelchair for every article about someone with a disability ignores the people who live with other mental and physical disabilities. Not every disability is visible, and it may be impossible to visually show what some disabilities look like. But there are visual clues, like a hearing aid or a cane, that can evoke what is necessary for the article. Again, sometimes a person in a wheelchair is perfect for the piece of work. But many times, that photo could be replaced with something that challenges the basic idea of what a disability looks like.

Photos of Native communities are even harder to find when it comes to depictions of people and ordinary life. Stock photo sites rely on stereotypes to portray Native life. But like many underrepresented communities, Native communities need to be seen in a light outside of what the general public perceives their life to be. In these cases, I’ve had to rely on the groups featured in the piece to supply photos, as was the case with Mary Pember’s article on “the midwives’ resistance.”

One solution I’ve found to the lack of diverse photos is protest photos, which have seen a resurgence, largely due to Trump’s presidency. Lauryn Gutierrez, Rewire’s producer for our multimedia team, has taken incredible photos of the many demonstrations in D.C. Her photos provide us with original options, which have the benefit of showing real people and the issues they are fighting for. 2017, in particular, saw an apparent spike in the number public demonstrations, from the Women’s March to the March for Science. Thanks to those events, we’ve developed a photo archive for future pieces on LGBTQ issues, disability rights, race and racial justice, and so on.

Protest photos are probably the most diverse images we have access to. Even so, they don’t come without their own issues. Photos of people in protest don’t always fit the tone of a piece. If I relied solely on those images to fill the gap left by stock photo sites, Rewire’s entire front page would be overwhelmed with similar photos of different people holding posters above their heads. So I’ve balanced these photos with images from other sites; still, finding the best image for a piece remains a daily challenge.

Even when I think I’ve found the perfect image, I have to stop myself to consider how the image might be perceived. For example, am I only using photos of Black people for articles about racism in poor communities? Are queer couples only present in photos if they’re marching for equality? Protest photos are great at documenting actions, but they don’t do justice to what it takes for everyday people to survive the current climate. That might be spending time with friends, taking a minute to call a parent or other loved one, or doing community service. I want more photos of what life really looks like for a range of underrepresented people.

Finding good photos is difficult and requires a lot of creativity and unique searches to discover the perfect image for an article. Everything I’ve criticized here represents something I’ve done, and I’m challenging myself to think more creatively to avoid the pitfalls that are harmful or just plain lazy. Photo library websites certainly have work to do in stocking up on photos that break from the status quo, but those sites aren’t completely at fault either; news publications must do better when looking for images that don’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes or suggest things that are simply not true. So I offer my process here in case it might be helpful at your publication.

Photos are incredibly important in today’s social media-driven world, so think hard about what an image says before placing it next to a snappy headline.