In the world of stock photography, life can often look basic: Women laugh alone with salads. Guys in suits smile at each other in boardrooms. The scenes portrayed are frequently corporate, stereotypical to the point of being offensive, and stacked with catalog-friendly (white) models who express singular emotions with exaggerated facial expressions. So it's fortunate that an increasing number of new, fresh-looking stock photo sites are popping up, except for one small issue: The photos still don't represent reality accurately — just differently.
While this new generation of stock photography has mostly done away with yesteryear's cheesy images, they've largely taken their inspiration from social media. The sites boast page after page of photos that give off a Pinterest-worthy, zen-filled, hipster vibe. In the stock universe, life looks stress-free and rosy — literally, thanks to pink-colored vintage filters.
And, when it comes to presenting curated perfection, some of the worst offenders are images related to sleep.
Given that I write for a publication about the world of sleep and anything remotely related to it, I spend a lot of time browsing through stock photo sites for images to accompany articles about insomnia or nightmares or the negative effects of blue light or — I don’t know — Korean fan death. But as it turns out, finding photos that work is no last-minute task. I often write about problems with sleep, only to find photos that represent a world where people appear to have no problem sleeping whatsoever.
Last week, I visited the site Pexels — a contemporary photo site that has free photos for personal and commercial use. The front page greets you with a revolving image — of a foggy field, or maybe a suspiciously traffic-free city. Thin-boned, bohemian-chic girls in interesting hats are doing things like working on Macs in impeccably clean industrial spaces, or staring up atLumina® filtered skies while holding sun salutation poses.
And, I get it. When you use free photos, you don't get to complain about the quality of them. But let me be clear: I really do appreciate that sites like Pexels (or Picography or Unsplash) exist, whether or not their photos mostly represent highly stylized, privileged lifestyles. But when I type in my go-to search terms, things gets frustrating.
The adjective “tired,” for instance, means something entirely different in this realm of bearded Brooklynites and contemplative tea drinkers. I may be searching for an image to go with an article about the effects of depression on people's sleeping patterns, but what I get are images that show “tired” with a cup-half-full mentality instead: pictures of dozing dogs and cats, yawning dogs and cats (these are different things!) and people sleeping in luxurious circumstances. There's a woman with waist-length, blown-out hair all wrapped up in a fluffy, white duvet. (She’s wearing a silk nightgown that’s been steamed. Steamed!) There may me more than one photo of a muscular-but-bookish man curled up in an Eames lounge chair.
This isn’t photography for the people, unless “the people” means pretty white women who take afternoon hammock-naps on private beaches. This is a representation of the word in its most wholesome, pure sense: Somebody got sleepy for totally natural, healthy reasons, and thus lied down for a quick, blissful respite from waking life. This is not "tired" in the sense of, "I was up all night again trying to soothe my screaming, red-faced newborn," or, “I don’t have enough life force left to take a shower, nevertheless follow my dreams.”
In the modern world, sleep is often hard to come by. We work too much, eat and drink too much, suffer from anxiety and depression or parasomnias, live in areas filled with noise and light pollution, find ourselves unable to afford a comfortable bed, find ourselves unable to get someone to cover our night shift, even though we're sinus-infected messes.
And furthermore, sleep isn't glamorous. Sure babies are cute, but the rest of us drool, snore, fart, sweat and sleep on sheets that we haven't found the time to wash in a month. (God I hope that's not just me.)
Social media, of course, is the populist extension of this. Successful people with iPhones everywhere have been working on perfecting the art of self-curation for a good part of the Millennium. A short trip through Instagram teaches us that happiness is baking your own Paleo muffins to take on a hike or lounging around in activewear and smiling as you drink a glass of water.
But all this beauty and apparent fullfilment raises the question of whether or not I — as someone who produces content (the new term for "writes") — should really be looking for these literal images to illustrate my work anyway. And I mean that not just as an artistic/design choice, but in terms of our current culture. Do we give the people what they want, or what actually reflects their lives?
The other week, while searching for images to go with an article about holiday-season stress, I searched for the term "miserable." I should know better by now, obviously, but I still wanted to give it the ol' try. The search term yielded zero results. I wondered for a moment if the site was purposely mocking me, but then I remembered that misery doesn't exist in the new world of stock photography.
Here, there is only the wistful sadness that comes from staring out the window on a rainy day. Maybe that's okay. Maybe we all need some impossibly hipster life to aspire to instead of, say, a glossy, mass-market image of a woman holding a bowl of iceberg lettuce.