‘Balanced’ Storytelling

For an editor who likes to rely on fancy-sounding quotes, it won’t sound too sophisticated to say that a picture is worth a thousand words.

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But in the business of storytelling, it’s a cliché that very accurately summarizes just one more challenge to building a world of more racial equality.

The challenge centers around stock photography, an obscure world that happens to be a critical tool for media outlets, marketers, ad agencies, and social media teams. Stock-photography websites, some of which are free, are the main if only provider of images for these outlets, thus playing a rather significant role in modern storytelling and marketing.

Though they don’t see it as intentional, photo editors and photographers perennially complain that interesting shots of Black people and other minorities, particularly in work environments, are few and far between. The stock shots for White people won’t always be too intriguing either, but the odds will be better. “You see it all the time,” says DL Warfield, an Atlanta-based artistic creative director. “It’s not contemporary. It’s just dated.” A skilled photographer, Warfield says when he grows frustrated with the selections, he goes and takes the “stock” shots himself.

But that isn’t an option for outlets that are not staffed with photographers, or for simple bloggers and agencies just looking to download images to round out a piece. We live in a world flooded with images online, and some of this is the reality of more Whites in the population. But if the more memorable images tend to show one group, then this is whom the world sees and identifies with; other groups whose images are less effective for storytelling become more hidden.

The good news is that this problem has spurred on efforts to create stock-photo websites with much more creative images of Black people and other minorities. (As a side note, we’ll be striving to use more ourselves in this magazine in print and online.) But the bad news is that there is even a need for this niche. As much as I value great writing, images are often a key component of an article. Take that away, and the ability to provide truly diverse storytelling remains out of grasp.