Let's Talk About Why Stock Photos Are Evil and Depressing


I guess it all started when I founded Exitevent, some five years ago. I mean, I've been writing on the web forever, almost as long as there has been a web. Angelfire long. Geocities long. But when I started the content side of ExitEvent and started publishing articles on startup three to four times a week, I knew from the beginning that each article had to be accompanied by an image -- a picture that, in one glance, would cleverly summarize the point the article was trying to make.

Yeah. That's what started my decline into the soul-killing world of stock imagery.

I founded Intrepid Media, the first-ever social network for writers and probably one of the first-ever social networks, in 1999. Back then, we weren't putting images on anything, except once in a while when the image captured the actual subject of the article. Images were a rarity for a number of reasons:

1. Digital cameras weren't as prevalent back then.

2. Thus, the Internet was still mostly a textual medium.

3. Most of the world was on dial-up, and images made pages take forever to load.

You kids don't know how good you have it today with your Snapchat and your Periscope.

A word of warning: If you do a Google image search for "snapchat teens" in an effort to nail a joke about ham-handed snapchat stock imagery showing cool, hip kids having a smiley-awesome time using snapchat -- make sure you have SafeSearch on its strongest setting.

In the mid-oughts, I wrote some code to make it easy for our Intrepid Media members to post a headline image with their articles, and most did. But again, these were mostly self-created images, personal digital photos, Excel-spawned infographics, or maybe a promotional photo from something we were reviewing like an event or a movie.

But with ExitEvent, I was writing about startup three times a week. And even when it wasn't my article, I was usually on the hook to find the right headline image for someone else's article. This was fine when the story was about a company or an event, but about 50% of ExitEvent was about startup itself, which meant I was usually sifting through images like this:

And this:

It quickly became emotionally burdensome to scroll through pages and pages of these super-cliched and easily identifiable photos to get the one I needed that would perfectly encapsulate the finely-sculpted vibe and the very nuanced point of each article, let alone three to four times a week, let alone all pretty much along a startup-businessy topic.

It wasn't much longer before finding images became my least-favorite part of doing ExitEvent. Worse than selling ads, worse than nagging writers into hitting deadlines, worse than hearing the same pitches over and over from entrepreneurs who DESERVED some digital ink for their game-changing derivative of Facebook.

And it wasn't even so much the time it took or the difficulty finding exactly what I needed, it was a sinking crappy feeling, like a depression or an overall sadness, that took me over while scrolling through hundreds if not thousands of versions of this:

Or this:

A lot of this:

Even this:


I'm all about the business of creativity and artists being able to sell what they create. And I can state for the record that I've never knowingly ripped off someone's image, even though the rules around fair use and open licensing make it difficult to know for sure.

There are fine lines between creating art, allowing your art to be sold, and allowing your art to sell something else. As a writer and a musician and a devout follower of punk and grunge, I get this. But there's a line that's not so fine, and that's between creating art and creating crap disguised as art for the sole purpose of shifting units.

OK, that one is actually pretty good.

I don't know. I'm not really complaining or pointing fingers or predicting the downfall of western civilization at the hands of Shutterstock. I'm just highlighting a little flaw in the system, and maybe it's just me, maybe I'm the only one who gets really sad having to look at a bunch of those kinds of images.

But there is hope. A couple of years ago the marketing machine for a movie called Unfinished Business, a Vince Vaughn vehicle that wasn't very good, produced an excellent series of mock stock images that parodied exactly what I hate about those photos:

At least I know I'm not alone.