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WCCW Stock Photo Project, Office/workplace category (all photos by Salima Allen)

As the social media manager for the Women’s Center for Creative Work — a non-profit organization focused on supporting feminist creative communities in LA — Salima Allen was having trouble finding stock photos to promote events and workshops. “I was constantly running into the problem of not being able to find representative photos of our community,” she told Hyperallergic. “Most feature white men or women. The women are often sexualized, or not holding tools properly. There weren’t any non-binary people, people of different shapes and colors.”

“Stock photo imagery is still really homogeneous,” added Nicole Kelly, Program Director for the WCCW. “It’s hard to find people of color doing a range of activities, to find images of people doing yoga that weren’t white women.”

WCCW Stock Photo Project, Research category

Motivated by their frustration with what was already available, the collective decided to make their own images, dubbing it the WCCW Stock Photo Project. “Our goal is to create a stock photo database featuring people of color, women, genderqueer, and disabled folks of all ages and body types, in a variety of settings and narratives,” reads the project description.

WCCW Stock Photo Project, Handywork/gardening category

If you spend any time online, you’re no doubt familiar with stock photos, those staged images of people doing everyday activities like work, recreation, or laughing alone with salad (women only). They range from the banal to the absurd, and have become a prime source for internet memes, since they must be generic enough to be appropriate for multiple situations. For every stock photo that is meme-ified however, there are dozens or hundreds more that we come across daily, used in editorial and advertising contexts — both digital and in print — that we consume almost subliminally.

“Most of us don’t even think about what stock photos we’re seeing, or even that we’re looking at a stock photo,” Christina Ceisel, an assistant professor at California State University Fullerton who focuses on critical cultural studies, told Hyperallergic. Because they are so under-the-radar, they have largely been left out of conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion that have been taken up in other areas of media and entertainment. Although a few companies have sprouted up recently offering more diverse packages, the overwhelming amount of stock photos still represent a very narrow segment of the population.

“When you have the most mundane representations as young white people, you end up normalizing that,” Ceisel said. “Stock photos are the most insidious way in which quotidian whiteness is maintained.”

Instead of dictating what kind of content they’ll produce, the WCCW sent out a survey, asking their members what they would like to see. The responses covered not just who should be represented (“Dark black skin tones,” “Trans and gender non-conforming,” “People with Disabilities” read some of the responses), but their activities as well (“Relationship photos between people of different ethnicities and same gender”).

In the stock photos they looked at, even if non-typical subjects were included, they were often defined by their difference. “When you find people of color, it’s in very particular contexts,” said Kelly. “Pregnant women were usually sitting on the couch, holding their bellies,” noted Allen. “I know so many women who worked through pregnancy.”

WCCW Stock Photo Project, music/tech category

Although they’ll be collecting survey responses through January, they’ve come up with some initial categories like feminism, social justice, creative work, and technology. They received $12,500 in funding through the Creative Economic Development fund, which will be used to pay models and photo editors.

And while Allen has already begun taking photos, they aim to invite other photographers to shoot collections, to better reflect their core values both in front of and behind the camera. “We would purchase the collection and the artist would get more exposure/experience as well,” says Kelly. “This is part of our overall goal to create value around the creative work of women and non-binary artists, by paying them, by sharing our platform, and by creating opportunities for them to advance their careers.”

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he is a frequent contributor to Daily Serving, and Glasstire.