By Katherine Hurst 24/03/2021


Are you familiar with headclutchers and headless fatties? How about hackers in hoodies? These tips and resources will help you avoid the clichés and make a more considered choice next time you’re searching for the perfect picture. 

Beside every great science story is a great stock image. Although actually some of those images aren’t so great. It only takes a minute to pick a freebie from a stock photo website, but it can have a lasting impact. Does your image reinforce stereotypes? Does it mislead the audience, or even directly contradict the research in the article? Maybe it’s just bizarre or distracting. And don’t forget the basics – use images that feature a diverse cast of people, and avoid sexism. A picture paints a thousand words, so make sure that your image is saying what you want it to say.

 

Obesity

Dr Charlotte Cooper coined the term “headless fatty” back in 2007, and sadly things haven’t changed a lot since then. She noticed that every article and press release about obesity seemed to be accompanied by a picture of a fat person, seemingly photographed unawares, with their head neatly cropped out. She said, “It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.”

Research backs up Dr Cooper’s observations – one study showed that 72 per cent of media images depicting overweight or obese people were portrayed in a negative way, and those people were significantly more likely to be “beheaded” than non-overweight people. They are also more likely to be shown eating or drinking.

The reason usually given for the headless fatty phenomenon is that it saves obese people the embarrassment of being identified – the assumption being, that they should be too ashamed to show their faces. But instead these stereotyped images lead to fat bodies being further objectified and dehumanised – and may even lead to public harrassment.

This weight stigma has negative consequences for both physical and mental health, which in turn can undermine obesity intervention efforts. Clichéd images that seem to blame individuals for their weight are unlikely to be effective in motivating healthier behaviour and reducing obesity.

Several organisations have set up free photo libraries to counteract this problem, containing normal photos of overweight and obese people living their everyday lives – heads included.

Access photo banks at the World Obesity Federation and the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center.

Climate Change

Large, complex issues like climate change can be very difficult to encapsulate in a single photo – that’s why the shorthand of  “lonely polar bear = climate change” is used so frequently. However this means that the effects of climate change may seem remote and irrelevant for many audiences.

“Climate change has an image problem. The images that define climate change shape the way it is understood and acted upon. But polar bears, melting ice and arrays of smoke stacks don’t convey the urgent human stories at the heart of the issue.” — Climate Visuals Website

Climate Visuals

To come up with a more diverse, relatable, and compelling visual language for climate change, the team at Climate Visuals looked at international social research and came up with seven core principles including showing real people, telling new stories, and showing local impacts.

They hope to inspire people with their library of over 1000 photos. Each image has an explanation of how it fits the core principles, and why the image works. For instance, for the flooded street image above they report that, “Our research found that ‘local’ flooding images were powerful and can be a tool to reach beyond the ‘green bubble’ (i.e. to those on the Right of the political spectrum).”

Another problem when portraying climate change can be mixed messages – stories with dramatic headlines about increasing temperatures or droughts will have their effect undermined if they are accompanied by photos of families enjoying the sun. It’s understandable to want to avoid putting a grim image alongside every article, but don’t go too far the other way.

You can access Climate Visuals’ library of images here.

NOTE: It’s still okay to use photos of polar bears, if your article is about polar bears.

 

COVID-19

The images that define COVID have changed over time – from the early days of microscopic viruses and toilet-paper hoarding through to zoom calls and people staring out their windows in lockdown, and now to the vaccines. While breaking news stories have been full of photos of exhausted healthcare workers, stock photos have concentrated more on their ninja-like qualities. And throughout the whole time possibly the most pervasive imagery of them all – facemasks.

It can be a struggle to come up with a new image to use for each COVID-related story when new stories are coming out constantly. Try mixing it up with some art: a mural, or a child’s drawing done in lockdown. If you’re using a photo from a laboratory, please see the Scientists section below.

And, as always, make sure the tone of the image matches your article. Even something which seems neutral can be used in different ways, for instance the virus itself can appear as both spiky and dangerous, and cartoonish and quirky. Make sure your image isn’t either too alarmist, or too understated.

Vaccinations

2021 is going to be a big year for stock images of vaccinations. A recent BMJ blog looking at vaccination photos from previous years identified recurring themes including doctor-patient power dynamics, and the trust needed for a vaccination to occur. If the patient in the picture looks unwilling or upset, it may encourage vaccine hesitancy.

Researchers studying the imagery in online news coverage of vaccines suggested that avoiding photos of needles could be helpful, since one survey showed seven per cent of parents named needle phobia as the main reason for not vaccinating their children.

It isn’t always necessary to show the act of injection, you could use more generic images such as patients chatting with healthcare workers, a bandaid on an injection site, or people waiting in line at a health clinic.

 

Mental Illness

Mental illness is often shown by a solitary person (often young and thin) with their head in their hands – commonly known as a “headclutcher“. These photos perpetuate an image of what mental health distress looks like, which creates the risk that people who don’t conform to the stereotype are not seen as deserving of help. They also paint a grim picture of life with mental health issues, completely isolated and devoid of hope.

Cochrane

So how can you show mental illness in a more realistic and less negative way? Jess Hendon, from the UK’s Cochrane Common Mental Disorders, suggests using positive everyday images of people, with a focus on prevention and recovery rather than crisis and distress. Drawings and more abstract visual representations can also sometimes be a helpful and distinctive alternative to photos.

Another idea is to show people who look subdued or sad, but who are receiving support from a friend. Putting the emphasis on receiving comfort provides a more optimistic outlook.

Headclutchers are also often used to show chronic pain – again, move away from the “crisis point” photo, and try to find images that show management of the condition, and that show people in real life interacting with other people.

WARNING: Be particularly cautious when choosing images to accompany stories on self-harm and suicide.

 

Disabilities

Photos of people with disabilities shouldn’t just be used to illustrate articles about disabilities. When choosing any image, think about including someone with a disability such as a person with a prosthetic leg or in a wheelchair. Showing people with less visually obvious disabilities might take more creative thinking, but could include people conserving in sign language, or a group of children playing, one of whom has a developmental delay.

WARNING: Be careful not to imply that the disability and the article’s subject are linked, for instance don’t use a photo of one person in a wheelchair to illustrate an article about depression (unless that’s what the story is about!). This can often be avoided by using images featuring a group of people.

When your article is specifically about a disability, try to show real people in genuine situations, and don’t resort to extremes – looking for stock photos of ‘wheelchairs’ seems to mainly produce despondent people on their own, or paralympians.

Disability Images’ very comprehensive photo library can be found herecharges apply for these images.

 

Scientists

Stock images of scientists can give the impression that all scientists wear labcoats and spend their days staring at things. Spending time finding an image which realistically depicts the tasks specific scientists perform can help tell a more interesting story. And of course don’t forget – not all scientists are white, or men.

Unsplash has some good collections of scientist photos – try This is Engineering from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, or Science in HD from the US Department of Energy.

 

Smoking

If your news story is about the impact of smoking on health, the last thing you need is a glamorous image of smokers accompanying it. Research shows that positive images of smoking in the media have the potential to downplay the serious health consequences of smoking by portraying it in a way that young people interpret as a normal part of everyday life.

Photos of smokers or cigarettes – or even cigarette packets or butts – can also be triggering for those trying to quit smoking. Instead try showing something more abstract, like the ‘quit smoking’ clock above.

 

Cannabis

 

In countries where recreational cannabis use has become legal, the images used by the media haven’t kept up with the move from photos of ‘smokers not stoners‘ (not to mention that not all cannabis products are smoked).

Smoking a joint isn’t always a harmfree activity (see Smoking section above) – but stock images showing cannabis users as lazy dropouts can be stigmatising and reinforce broad stereotypes.

Sharda Sekaran, the manager director of communication of the US Drug Policy Alliance, wrote “we all know that many marijuana smokers look more like your Aunt Bettie or your accountant than The Dude from The Big Lebowski; but most images in the public sphere still do not reflect this.”

The DPA have released an image library of everyday, “normcore” people consuming marijuana.

 

Hackers

Hackers are almost always portrayed (in the words of  Mashable) as “shady-looking individuals often found lurking in darkened rooms illuminated by nothing but the glow of menacing green binary code”. Instead, try using an image of someone typing at a computer – it’s okay if they’re coding in the dark (and definitely realistic), but do try to avoid the hoodie, gloves and balaclava.

It’s an issue for TV and movies as well. And while this may seem like a ‘victimless crime’, the problem is that it fosters the idea that criminals look a certain way, and means that people may not take the security precautions that they should if targeted by a hacker who doesn’t conform to the stereotype.

It’s possible that a hackers’ organisation has created an image library full of more appropriate images, but if so I couldn’t find it.


The topics and images mentioned here all appear regularly in the media, but there are many others – from the woman in white underwear illustrating endometriosis, to the sullen teen tapping on his computer to show autism.

At best, these overused depictions add nothing to the story or the conversation around it – and at worst they’re actively harmful. By contrast, well chosen images will hook readers in and enhance your story – so beware of the pitfalls, and go forward to challenge some lazy stereotypes!

 

Katherine is studying toward a Master’s of Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently working with the Science Media Centre.