Royalty-free images can be an editor's best friend. They're easy to access. They're cheap, sometimes free. Once legally obtained, they're ready to use over and over again.
Punch in a keyword or two, hit enter, and voila: pages upon pages of glossy, if not diverse, images ready to splay across whatever domain you desire. You know the kind: businessmen leaning in to shake hands, a woman jogging at sunset, perfectly manicured kitchens and lounge rooms.
One of the more peculiar elements of royalty-free images, as pointed out by Megan Garber of The Atlantic in 2012, 'is the manner in which, as a genre, they've developed a unifying editorial sensibility'. Discernible readers know when they're seeing a stock image. Their generic, cheesy sensibilities have become hackneyed; so much so they can undercut the authority of accompanying prose.
One only has to look at meme culture to see how their stock has declined (sorry, couldn't resist). This is one reason why we need to be careful with royalty-free photos. If used without much thought, they can misrepresent and trivialise serious issues. Trust me, I know.
I have the awful displeasure of living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) — a hugely misunderstood and devastating condition. CFS is an umbrella term simplifying a host of smaller conditions. They adversely affect the body's systems; severely cutting one's ability to think, sleep, concentrate, work, exercise, filter toxins and fight infection. Most patients cannot leave their beds or homes.
Funding, research and awareness are non-existent. Contrary to layman belief, CFS is not psychosomatic and has very little to do with sleep. Patients like me contend every day with not only crushing symptoms, but constant suspicion regarding their legitimacy. Because of its invisibility CFS often appears as an act. Though the real act is holding it all together; upholding any semblance of normality, just to be.
When I see a rare article on CFS, it is almost always suffocated underneath a stock photo of somebody yawning or with head in hands. The influence may seem subtle, but the ripples turn into tidal waves further down the line. These kinds of images contribute to society's misapprehension CFS is exclusively related to sleep, making it even tougher for patients to live in a world already hard enough to live in.
It gets even more difficult for us as sufferers to find the support we need. If there's barely any media coverage, and every time something CFS-related runs it includes pictures of handsome men rubbing their eyes — or, god forbid, Britney Spears circa 1990s — the stigma intensifies. Certain audiences may be more likely to click on a link if there's something fun in it, but believe me, there is nothing fun about having your personal integrity attacked by those closest to you, or being laughed at when you visit the doctor.
"We're no longer using general or outdated language when writing about these topics, so why continue to use these generic pictures?"
This does not only go for CFS, but every misunderstood or stigmatised topic. Too frequently we see generic royalty-free photography beside articles looking at mental illnesses, and issues related to domestic violence and bullying. Search for a piece on any of the above, and see what photos come up.
We're no longer using general or outdated language when writing about these topics, so why continue to use these generic pictures? Rarely, if ever, does all-purpose photography encapsulate the complexities or nuanced politics of an issue. Too often is a choice of header image lax; an afterthought, completely and utterly secondary to the prose it accompanies. As imagery begins to govern clicks on news sites and social media feeds, why shouldn't we pay closer attention to it? A header image is usually the first thing people see when visiting a webpage, and it quickly establishes the tone of the piece to come. No one issue is the same. Homogenising disparate ideas makes little sense, not least when it can be potentially damaging.
It can be time consuming to source proper images, yes, but it is our responsibility in the media — particularly those at influential outlets — to ensure conversations push forward, not backward. Next time your impulse tells you to tack on a royalty-free photo before publication, stop and ask whether it might be the best move. If not, get creative: think outside the box, use symbolism, source an illustration. The cost of choosing the wrong image can be larger than we may think.
Evan Young is a writer and multimedia journalist living in Melbourne. He sporadically tweets from @thebevaneffect.