The joy of stocks: The weird world of stock photos

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Is everything getting too much? Welcome to the strange world of stock photos.

There is a place where no emotion is understated. A place that pioneered "post-truth" before it was discovered by politicians. A place where both triumph and disaster are met with... perfect dentistry.

This is the land of stock pictures.

Even if you wanted to avoid it, you'll have been there. News websites and social media have spread the air-brushed nirvana of stock pictures further than ever before.

They are part of the click-bait culture, exaggerated and attention-seeking.

But what kind of messages are they sending? Are they reinforcing stereotypes? Or do they do the opposite and create a fake utopia of gender and racial equality?

Image source, Abel Mitja Varela/Getty Images
Image caption,
Jaguar Land Rover and Getty Images want a more realistic portrayal of women in engineering

Jaguar Land Rover and the photo agency Getty Images are deliberately trying to tackle this by creating their own stock images with a more "realistic" image of women engineers.

But most stock images remain heroically stage-managed and have their own rules of engagement.

It's a place where even in the most terrible of circumstances, make-up is always perfect and no-one has messy hair.

Here are some glimpses into stock image world:

Image source, Getty Images

Everything is awesome: Everything is positive. This is a land without shadows. Getting old? You're still in the driving seat. You're still going places. Show them you're happy with a really natural looking thumbs up.

Image source, Thinkstock

What does a "clever woman" look like? Light bulb, pigtails and a business suit. Obviously. She's got glasses and a pen and notebook too, so that's even more intellectual. And is that really a colander?

Image source, Thinkstock

Why have they glued my hands to my head? In stock photos, bad news or stress is always expressed through the hands. They hold on to their heads. If it's really bad, then it's two hands.

Mental health campaigners have actively warned against the "head-clutcher" image that seems to have become a visual marker for depression.

Image source, Thinkstock

Technology is always fake in stock images. Just as stock image people often live in empty rooms, the gadgets they use are blanks. This image showing "good news" is baffling on every level. If this is good news - what does tragedy look like?

Image source, Thinkstock

Death by DIY. Stock image actors are probably just filling in before that big break in Hamlet. But this is what tragedy and disaster really look like. A strange artificial room and an elaborate sense of desolation. This is Beckett with stepladders.

Image source, Thinkstock

Spelling it out with pictures. None of you has had a pay rise for years, despite all the corporate blather about sharing success. What do you want to be offered? You want less stick and a few more carrots. And with a lovely sincere smile.

Or maybe this is what happens if you go into a meeting where the laptop isn't really turned on and some maniac with vegetables has sketched a meaningless bar chart on the wall.

Image source, Thinkstock

So it's all over then. I thought things were looking bad for our relationship when you walked into the living room in a business suit and carrying half of a broken heart and a portable partition. We've all been there. Be strong.

Image source, Thinkstock

"Business meeting, diverse." Diverse, maybe. But completely bonkers. Imagine going to an away day with these smiling zealots. And any real meeting has at least half the participants surreptitiously checking their mobiles. This is a glimpse of the end-times, with flipcharts.

Image source, Thinkstock

Have you ever had a pain in your knee that felt a bit like a headache and wondered how you could show that in photographic form? No, I haven't either. But this would be the place to search. Apart from resembling an unsuccessful Harry Potter special effect, it's an example of the concept picture. But disturbing, very disturbing.

Image source, Thinkstock

Fake signposts and words on keyboards are part of the staple diet of stock photos. Looks familiar? We've all been there. We could be there again soon.