Can a single image represent an entire gender? Kim Knight on the mysterious world of stock photography.

The modern world is pretty confusing. How, for example, do you tell the difference between a policeman and a policewoman?

Clue: only one will be carrying a whip.

The world, according to stock image libraries, is strangely thin and overly sexual. It is populated by mainly white people who can afford a dentist, a manicurist and all the "ists".

They are the Everywoman - even if they don't look like any woman you actually know.


Back when everything was hard copy, newspapers carried just two or three images on a page. Now, every headline posted to the internet is "teased" with a picture. That's thousands of visuals a day, illustrating stories about house prices, the health benefits of a high-cheese diet and (actual headline) how to fold fitted sheets.

Many of those photographs come from stock image libraries - places like Getty Images, Shutterstock and 123rf - vast online repositories created to realise another cliche: that a picture is worth a thousand words.

"Stock photos are premised on an economy of images," says Dr Holly Randell-Moon, from the University of Otago's department of media, film and communication. "When people are looking to illustrate copy, what they want is an image that quickly economises the ideas they're talking about. That means stock photos rely on stereotypes."

And so, two Fridays ago, a "feminist" was (according to the first offering on Getty Images) an extraordinarily well-defined gluteus maximus in a mustard-yellow skirt, striding past an orange traffic cone and a sign that read "women at work". The figure wore fuchsia-pink heels and, because the photograph was cropped at the waist, no face. This feminist was not so much kicking butt, she was all butt.

Men are stereotyped too, says Randell-Moon. "But in more positive ways. When you search 'businessman' you do get stereotypes of men wearing suits, but they tend to be more action-orientated. There are a lots of images of businessmen running, or standing up and yelling, or doing a 'yes, totally nailed it' high-five. They're about men being assertive and very active."

And the businesswoman?

"They're sitting, in conversations listening to someone, or they're positioned in a subordinate position in relation to men."

When Canvas searched one stock image website, the sixth "businesswoman" we encountered (out of the approximately 8000 filed under that search term) was indeed sitting. Her long, bare legs were actually resting on her desk, probably because her stilettos were killing her, probably because she'd had a crazy morning trying to find the top three buttons to her skin-tight, button-through businesswoman dress. (Her computer, her in-tray and anything else that might have indicated she was actually at work, were also missing.)

Portrait of a beautiful young business woman in the office. Photo / 123RF
Portrait of a beautiful young business woman in the office. Photo / 123RF

"There is research that shows women have to be more attractive in their jobs and that women have to smile a lot," says Randell-Moon. "In almost every profession, women are expected to smile more and that is linked to their ability to succeed in a particular business. So these stock images of businesswomen smiling, or where they're sexualised, it does reinforce a broader industrial culture - where we expect women to be pleasing to their audience."

On Planet Stock Image, "mother" is white, thin and pretty (across 50 images on one site, only two women failed to fit this stereotype). "Housework" is best completed in a retro red gingham dress. Nurses take their own pulse (because they can?). Teachers and scientists both wear glasses and cleavage, but you can tell them apart because the scientist has a lab coat.

Not every stock image is scantily-clad. Some are, simply, cheesy. How do you illustrate universal truths like love, divorce or period pain? (Answer: a heart, a hammer and a hotwater bottle.)

Let's face it, one woman's chances of accurately representing the hopes, dreams and attire of her entire gender are exactly zero. But what about three women?

Meet Image ID 42943756. This smiling, attractive tri-ethnic trio in timeless, colour-blocked clothing meets regularly to discuss such topics as getting pregnant in your 20s, 30s and 40s and how to use your Westpac debit card in Australia.

They routinely share their thoughts on how they are actually humans in their own right and not just slaves to little people (, and also how ordinary women can stand together against the injustice of modern-day slavery (

In their spare time, they make appearances for the National Association of Professional Women ("make it work for you!"), any number of beauty clinics and various media organisations publishing stories on having kids, or not having kids, or why your kids have no friends.

Who are these mysterious Everywomen? Canvas tracked Image ID 42943756's creators to an office in Bangkok. Nica Tortosa, community relations liaison for photographic agency Rawpixel Ltd, told us the stock image that had been used by banks and beauty clinics alike, was shot last May on a beach at Pranburi, Thailand.

"Our goal was pretty simple: to photograph friends [the three women] having fun together in a beach setting."

The women were chosen "from our greatly diverse model database because they have amazing, genuine personalities and smiles. Most of our models are friends in real life. So getting the shot of them being exactly that - friends chillin' out - had a more organic feeling to it".

Tortosa says Rawpixel has minimal control over who buys and uses its photographs, but licensing conditions preclude using images in offensive, libellous, obscene, immoral or illegal manners, or in infringement of someone else's trademark or intellectual property. The Rawpixel shot proves not every stock image is of a scantily-clad, high-heeled woman.

Canvas tracked another "real" photo of a group of young women through an online campaign for teen diabetes, to a news story on how to date a punk and an anti-abortion thinkpiece. Wanna star in a stock image? Oh, the places you'll go. Just last month, the Washington Post's political blog The Fix reported the case of a US senator campaigning for African-American votes in North Carolina.

The problem? He was using stock footage of children in a classroom shot in actual Africa. An earlier political ad promoting the "brighter path" presidential candidate Jeb Bush would lead his country on, had apparently featured a British sunrise and a construction worker from somewhere in Southeast Asia.

Academics say the use of stock images has accelerated with the rise on new, and online, media.

And Dr Carisa Showden, University of Auckland senior lecturer in sociology, says while both men and women are objectified by the industry, depictions of women are narrower.

"They tend to emphasise a kind of profession-alised sexuality - the high heels, the low-cut blouse, lots of makeup ..."

That she says, produces a recursive loop. "When that's what we expect to see, we look to see it. We find it, and we reproduce it. The danger is we do, increasingly, expect both women and men to put time into the 'body project'. To look good, to succeed in an increasingly competitive and entrepreneurial marketplace."

What would happen asks Showden, "if you messed with expectations? What would that do to readership, what would that do to your story? To the context, and to how people engage with that content?"

Do stock images proffer professionalised sexuality - or soft-porn? Photo / 123RF
Do stock images proffer professionalised sexuality - or soft-porn? Photo / 123RF

(Two years ago, Getty Images did collaborate with one of the tech industry's most famous females, Sheryl Sandberg, to create a "Lean In" collection of 2500 photographs depicting a broader - and less stereotyped - range of human faces, shapes and experiences. The customer's main concern? The pictures cost too much to use).

But Showden says someone has to make the first move. "Somebody has to be thinking about this, and they have to be willing to take the risk. The images that we see around us tell us who 'fits' the category - and we are always seeing the same people in the category.

"We're seeing that in the US election at the moment with Hillary Clinton. She doesn't look presidential, because nobody who looks like her has ever been President before!"

Not every housewife wears a 1950s shirt dress. Not every feminist wears fuchsia-pink stilettos. No on-duty policewoman ever wears tight leather pants and a midriff top, and its doubtful female scientists go naked under their lab coats in work hours.

Do stock images proffer professionalised sexuality - or soft-porn? Two Fridays ago, Canvas typed the P-word into a stock image search. Oddly, the main result was pictures of cake, followed by a smattering of men staring in horror at their computer screens. Maybe they'd just googled "policewoman".