Stock photography models have shared the horrible, hilarious and embarrassing instances where their images have been used in unforeseen ways.
There are millions of stock photos with identifiable models in them available from the likes of iStock, Getty Images, Shutterstock, and Stocksy. Once the model signs the release form, it’s pretty much carte blanche as to how a customer may use them.
Maybe a news outlet needs a generic image of a person to accompany an op-ed about someone’s decision to a vow of celibacy; or an ad agency needs a picture for a healthcare client’s HIV awareness brochure. A cheap stock photo will fit the bill. No need to commission an expensive shoot, even if the subject deals with a sensitive topic and someone’s likeness will be used without their permission.
New Zealand journalist, Abigail Johnson, who has done stock photography modelling, posted to Twitter to ‘NEVER do stock image modeling, just don’t do it’. The Tweet is accompanied with graphic of an article in The Guardian showing Johnson with the headline: ‘I’m 25 and won’t have sex until I’m married. Why can’t I get a man?‘
The Guardian article is part of a sexual advice column where readers anonymously submit queries to a US-based psychotherapist, Pamela Stephenson Connolly, who specialises in treating sexual disorders. Online publishing generally benefits from a visual aid, and The Guardian sourced this stock photo of Johnson, which essentially suggests she is the abstaining 25-year-old.
It’s not the first time The Guardian has done this, and won’t be the last. In 2013 The Guardian published an op-ed article, ‘I fantasise about group sex with old, obese men‘, (pictured at top) and included a stock image of a woman wearing pyjamas and holding her head with a look of discontent.
The article went viral primarily due to the model unknowingly being pictured to visualise the subject matter, and The Guardian addressed the matter. The model’s name is Samantha Ovens, who managed to laugh the whole incident off:
‘I opened it up when I was with some friends,’ says Ovens, who had been tipped off at the weekend by the Twitter whirlwind. ‘In fact, I was with my partner’s mum as well. I screeched with laughter and said: “Oh. You have to see this”. There’s me looking very anxious, and I bloody well would be, wouldn’t I?’
The image in question had come from a ‘Colds and Illnesses‘ shoot she did two years ago, when she was 36. ‘I think they had me sneezing, curled up in bed, blowing my nose. There were loads of different versions,’ she recalls. Being gay in real life, but a specialist in portraying yummy mummies in the press and on television, she is used to a certain level of irony where all her work is concerned. But this was new.
Johnson’s Tweet sparked other stock photography models to show where they discovered their image, or instances where a model may regret the shoot.
Florian Sachisthal features in a stock photo where he’s lying in bed shirtless. That photo was published in an article with the headline ‘Male prostitution tripled in Spain due to economic crisis‘. Marley Bennett found his photo on a UK cigarette packet label warning that ‘smoking increases the risk of impotence’.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, accepting this modelling job was definitely a mistake,’ he wrote in 2018.
Another user, Jeremiah, found his portrait on packaging for a novelty adhesive moustache; and a woman had her stock photo appear in an ad for breast reduction. And a bloke whose photo was uploaded to Unsplash had his mug appear on an article with the headline ‘Why I don’t follow white men on Twitter (until they follow me)’.
Stock photos are also used in political campaigns. In 2019 Inside Imaging reported that the Australian Labor and Liberal Parties continuously licensed the same 2009 photo of a distressed elderly woman.
Here’s an excerpt of our coverage:
The iStock photos have been licensed by the Labor Party in online campaigns from 2013, 2014, 2015, and August 2018. The Liberal Party used the photo in a Tasmanian campaign in 2018, and this year she has appeared as the ‘poster granny’ for a campaign against Labor, the ABC reports.
She has featured in minor and major advertisements, from billboards and videos, to polls on websites, and Facebook and Twitter posts.
The portrait photo is from a set of eight, described as ‘Distressed Senior Woman with Bills’. Typically the image has been used as ammo against various policy changes which the political parties claim will harm pensioners and retirees, the elderly, or low income earners.
A Standard Licence of the image costs just US$36. It provides perpetual and unlimited, but non-exclusive, use of the photo, with an option to purchase an extended license. Salt Lake City photographer, Todd Keith, shot the images in the town of Sandy, Utah back in 2009. Keith told the ABC the model was 72-years old back then and he suspects she has since passed away.
Stock photos also regularly become viral memes. For instance, ‘Distracted boyfriend’ is a 2015 Shutterstock photo showing a man looking over his shoulder at a woman in a red dress, while his partner looks at him in shock. The picture has been co-opted in countless variations and viewed by millions of people.
Model release forms can vary, but stock photography models generally have minimal power to dictate how pictures are used. Even if they did this wouldn’t gel with the stock photography business model, which centres around providing instant and easy access to an expansive library of images.
It’s possible that AI-generated pictures, including human faces, will replace stock photos. No one will be offended by an imaginary person’s face being used in a sex health awareness brochure, and AI text prompt image generators like Dall E are already available.
That being said, the AI image generators are far from perfect. Inside Imaging attempted to use Dall E to generate a generic stock photo for the article ‘I fantasise about group sex with old, obese men‘. Dall E’s content policy doesn’t permit naughty words like ‘fantasise’ or ‘sex’, so we opted for the prompt: ‘ stock photo woman attracted to groups of obese, old men’.
The best results (below) are unusable, so it looks like stock photo models will remain safely employed.