the power of depiction / by Anne Miltenburg

the opportunities stock photography offers to social progress


It can be frightening to realise how much advertising plays a role in our lives. The average person in the West is exposed to almost 5,000 ads a day, many of which are accompanied by photography. And what we see in these photos leaves imprints on our norms for beauty, happiness, health and professional life.  As a brand developer that deeply believes in diversity, a feminist and a sister, daughter and wife to men who are committed husbands and fathers, I am keenly aware of the opportunity I have to portray women and men in ways that support progress. Through the photography we commission, or the stock photography we purchase, we send a message about gender roles, the workplace, families and what type of life we can aspire to. But creating images that support our beliefs is not as easy as one would think. It's not common for the startups we work with to have elaborate budgets for custom photography. So while developing the brand for adult education disruptor Diantha Rumahlewang in 2014, we faced a challenge.

We needed to show a work environment that reflected what we believed in: ambitious women in leadership positions, men who want to balance their lives and work and an exiting cultural diversity. With many models needed in many settings, the cost of setting up our own photo shoot would become too high. So we turned to stock photography sites where you can purchase a license to pre-made materials.

In working with stock, you know you will have to trade in authenticity for a low price. But what we found was not just generic photo's: we found outdated stereotypes. Most regular stock photos of women at work depict them as anonymous corporate beings; ageless rail thin white women with toothpaste smiles who run from meeting to meeting in 6 inch heels, while keeping their grey pin striped skirt, white shirt and jacket in immaculate form. It was clear that this would not work. 

You can't be what you don't see

Studies show time and time again that representation and recognition play a huge role in inspiring the life- and career choices of the next generation. In the ongoing process of emancipation, the right representation of women in media and advertising can play a crucial role. Their absence in many industries, such as tech, can be explained in part by a lack of representation of women in those industries (as described so brilliantly in this NPR podcast). But that representation is as much influenced by the actual presence of women in new roles as the depiction and accessibility of their stories. 

Images from Getty's Lean In Collection. Part of the proceeds go to the Lean in Foundation. 

Images from Getty's Lean In Collection. Part of the proceeds go to the Lean in Foundation. 

Fortunately, facebook CFO and author of the book 'Lean in', Sheryl Sandberg, realised the power of depiction. Her Lean-In foundation (which offers women the support and inspiration they need to achieve their goals) teamed up with Getty Images to create the Lean In collection. It shows successful women and girls, and the people who support them. The images reflect an optimistic, yet realistic view of contemporary life and society.

The Lean In Collection features young female tech developers, girls engaged in karate, older women leading teams in a comfortable, informal style. Men are equally updated to the times, balancing their work with being a father or a husband and working from home. 

Diantha Rumahlewang by Anneke Hymmen

Diantha Rumahlewang by Anneke Hymmen


Diantha and I hand selected half a dozen images that suited her view on work, life and the ambition she has for her company and her students.  We combined it with custom portraits of Diantha by Dutch photographer Anneke Hymmen. The hybrid option of custom and stock turned out to work great for us.

The Lean In Collection proves the age old golden rule in communication: don't say it, show it! When positive images of new gender roles start to spread across our media and advertising landscape, they will help to push the status quo. Brand developers, clients, photographers and stock agencies can shatter glass ceilings together.  


Please note we are not paid or otherwise rewarded by Getty or Lean In for this post.