Before you read any further in this article, take a moment to look at the following stock photograph. You can click to expand it and study it more closely. I wanted to stick a quick picture into one of my presentations to support a point I was making about attendees taking notes while listening to a talk.
I happened to find this shot on Depositphotos, although the same image is available on BigStockPhoto, GettyImages, iStockPhoto, Fotolia, Dreamstime, and many other commercial sites.
When I first glanced at the picture, a few thoughts fleetingly occurred to me in roughly this order. I wonder if they went through your mind as well?
- That name "Dan" is awfully prominent and centered. I wish we weren't focusing so much on one name.
- I wish the guys didn't all look so similarly posed. It would look more natural if one of the guys had his jacket on, or if their hands were in different positions instead of all holding the pen and pad the same way.
- Huh! Looking below the chairs is funny. It almost looks like the guys have bare, female legs!
- Those women's legs are positioned strangely. On the left, they are in perfect symmetry, and on the right it looks like two women are playing footsie with each other.
And then after all of those thoughts, I suddenly realized something else:
- Why do we see three men in the front row, completely hiding a significant number of women behind them?
The minute I noticed that fact, everything else paled in comparison. I wonder if my female readers noticed the hidden women issue much higher up the "thoughts tree." I can't know… I'm trapped in a male's perspective, and initially the gender representation was invisible to me because I'm used to thinking about myself as a male audience member.
I wouldn't use this picture in a presentation now that I recognize how it might affect my audience's perception of me. That sounds egotistical, but it's not. I am not actually worried about my reputation or whether my female listeners would approve of my choices. I wouldn't use it because I want the audience concentrating on my message and the points I am making about the topic. If their focus is pulled to a side issue of thinking about whether I am a male chauvinist pig or whether I even noticed how it relegates them to second-tier status, then they have stopped thinking about the points I am making.
The point of a presentation is to inform, enthuse, influence, or prompt action from an audience. ANYTHING that distracts and detracts from that goal works against you. So take the time to evaluate whether others might see your picture differently than you do. Are there hidden biases inherent in the choice of models, settings, or poses?
Please note, there are practical realities to consider. You can't make every picture look like a perfectly balanced diversity poster. If you try to find photos that include "a man, a woman, someone older, someone younger, someone white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic…" you are headed for disaster. Just mix it up a little. If you showed a Caucasian businessman on one slide, show an Asian female on another slide. See if you can find a photograph that happens to include someone in a wheelchair or in leg braces… And doesn't make that the focus and the point of the picture.
Stock photography sites by and large have a big problem with diversity. Women are regularly portrayed as over-sexualized. Caucasian representation is FAR greater than actual demographic percentages in the real population. It's hard enough finding an image that supports the point you are trying to make. Looking for diversity makes the job that much more challenging. But it's an important challenge to take on.
A while back, I wrote about one stock photography site that was trying to offer better, more inclusive choices of models. It has its weaknesses, but is still a great sourcing alternative to add to your search list.
And just to end the discussion on a lighter note, let me give a shout-out to a Twitter account called Dark Stock Photos (@darkstockphotos). This user has curated a collection of stock photographs available on major commercial sites. Each photo is stunningly inappropriate and disturbing. You can spend delicious hours scrolling through and trying to guess why some photographer felt the need to pose people in such a politically incorrect tableau. Easily offended viewers should take heed of trigger warnings. The photos often involve simulated death, danger, and involvement of children as posed models. But this is not a prurient site and there is no pornography or realistic violence.