Diversifying Stock Photography: An Interview with Jenifer Daniels, Founder and CEO of Colorstock

"The internet in and of itself is very male and very pale and very English. The way that we write copy, the way we code, the way we find solutions to technical problems, all ascribe to that philosophy of 'white, male and pale.'"

by The Editor & Jenifer Daniels on November 14th, 2016

For years, the world of stock photography has been overwhelmingly white and male, leaving huge omissions in the visual language of the internet. Here at Model View Culture, we’ve often struggled to find stock photos created by, and featuring people of color. Enter Colorstock: the first curated stock marketplace featuring all people of color. Launched last summer, it’s already changing the hue of stock photography. We chatted with founder and CEO Jenifer Daniels about the site, the changing world of visuals on the web, entrepreneurial advice for other tech + media upstarts, and Colorstock’s philosophy on supporting photographers of color.

MVC: Tell us about Colorstock! Where did the inspiration came from, how did you start working on it, what is your story?

Colorstock logo.

I’ve been a PR and marketing professional for 15 years, and I’ve always worked in nonprofits and educational institutions. I was tasked with telling authentic stories, yet I was always met with the same problems finding images that represented our customers. I didn’t necessarily think of it in terms of race or culture at first — I looked at it through the lens of “who is my customer?”. But I started to see that I couldn’t find images that look like my customers, because my customer is diverse and that’s the problem.

I started talking to professional peers about their pain points, and we all lamented over how stock photography was very limited. So I went on Twitter to see what people were saying about stock photography, and mining Twitter, I found that not only was I not the only person with this problem, but that people were willing to pay to have this problem fixed.

MVC: So true… ever since we launched Model View Culture, we’ve in particular struggled to find pictures that depicted people of color in a technology context. Can you talk a little about the landscape of stock photos overall, and what are the consequences of it being so homogenous, so whitewashed?  

Photo collage of Colorstock workplace photos. Includes people of color collaborating in meetings, working on their laptops and presenting content to their teams.

The internet in and of itself is very male and very pale and very English. The way that we write copy, the way we code, the way we find solutions to technical problems, all ascribe to that philosophy of “white, male and pale.” Visual imagery does the exact same thing. So when you see stock photography, it typically is male-driven, and if a woman pops up, she is viewed through the lens of a male. When you see people of color, again they are often viewed through the lens of a white male. What would a picture look like if a Black mother took the picture, versus a single white male?

One reason for this is that there haven’t been people of color in leadership roles at stock photography companies. We’re having these conversations now in big media firms and tech, but no one is rushing to integrate stock photography! Some of the most telling examples are just quick Google searches of terms in stock photography. If you type in “Native American,” you’re gonna get images of people dressed up in costumes. That’s indicative, of when we fail to realize that stock photography companies ARE media companies, that they suffer the same problems as other media companies.

MVC: Can you talk us through a couple of the collections that you have on Colorstock and why they are important?

Our workplace and technology collections are two big ones for us, because they support the narrative that people of color are present in these spaces. Statistics tell us that people of color are the largest users of technology, Black and brown communities are using mobile phones at a rate higher than laptops in their homes, and we know that social media itself is very brown. So why can’t we find images of people reflecting that truth?

It goes back to “you can’t be what you can’t see.” When people are telling stories about people of color joining bootcamps and accelerator programs, and you actually have imagery that matches that narrative, that makes people realize “yeah, I totally can go to this.” One of our most popular images this summer was of a child on her laptop, and that image was used for all kinds of summer coding camps and workshops. We ended up hearing back from a camp in South Carolina who had used our images, and they said their enrollment numbers were up, they saw a diverse clientele, and they had so much participation that it gave them a business case to seek out grant funding for a fall program!

MVC: One thing we’ve definitely run into when it comes to mainstream stock image collections, is that they are often so sanitized and they look so staged. In contrast, Colorstock talks about candid, real, story-based photography.

We’ve found that people really lament the fact that stock imagery looks staged. You have stock photography, this huge gap, then editorial/advertising photography, nothing in the middle. I think that Instagram kind of came in and captured that middle space, you started to see this more authentic story being told. To me, to marry diversity and authenticity together is the goldmine for us. We like to refer to those two things — diversity and authenticity — as cultural intelligence. It’s more than just brown people in pictures, it’s them doing things that come natural to them, living their normal lives. Not only are they people of color, but all of the images are colorful because maybe their nails are painted yellow, or they have locs dyed purple. We have a few wedding celebrations where you can see beautiful saris, the detail in the feathers of the Native American headdresses. That’s authentic, and those images tell stories without words.

A collage of images from Colorstock. Photos in the collage include a Black couple in a wedding portrait, a Black child being swung between her parents' arms, as well as images of people typing on laptops, and a table with tea and an iPhone.

MVC: On one side of this market you have the image consumers, but then on the other side there’s the artists and creators making these images. What are your views and philosophies as far as how you work with your artists and photographers?

We work with our photographers as a collective. We really want to keep a co-op feel to what we’re doing. We want to be selective about who we bring on, and we want people to respect the photographer’s craft. Creatives often feel alone in the world, they feel like people don’t value the work they do. And because people don’t value the work, they tend to steal it and do what they choose with it because they “found it on the internet.”

One of the things we talk about to photographers is, listen, would you rather have a bunch of hearts, or would you rather have some money? Do you want an additional stream of income? There are people who need these images, who will pay for these images if they have the opportunity to. And, we want to respect you as an artist, so we offer above-market commissions. Bigger sites are offering ten, twenty, thirty percent commission, and keeping the rest for themselves to build these big behemoths of libraries that the photographer gets lost in. They count vanity numbers, when it’s really not about that. It’s about one, the user being able to find the right image, and two, the photographer being properly paid and attributed.

That’s huge to us. The respect of their art, and also respecting who they are as artists. We pride ourselves on the fact that our collective is 90% people of color, and over 60% of our collective are women or gender nonconforming people. Each photographer comes with a different and unique point of view.

MVC: What are some other awesome things you see happening in the photography and media space, specifically when it comes to diverse representation and changing the status quo?

Well, I see the bigger companies paying attention to upstarts like us! Some of them have reached out around working relationships and that’s interesting, and it’s also very telling, that they are trying to correct their place in the market. But I also see artists figuring out ways to disseminate their art without the big behemoths. Photography is going be disrupted in the footsteps of other industries. Take education: for the longest time, it was either you went to school, you went to a college or university or a trade school, but now anyone can educate anyone, anywhere. So in stock photography you see more people who have found that they have their own point of view, and they’re putting out their own stock photography sites. Then there’s the advent of drone photography, and I can’t even wrap my mind around what virtual reality imagery is going to be like! But the interesting thing is that upstarts like Colorstock are going to be joined by other folks doing other amazing things in niche stock and microstock. The big guys better watch out!

MVC: What’s your advice for other people wanting to start their own projects in the tech and media space?

Obviously you need education, you should never go into something and not have a clue about it. And that’s not necessarily formal education, you just need to bone up on your stuff. And you need to have determination. So what would you need if you already have those? Well, you absolutely need a support system. Specifically when you’re in diversity in tech, you are gonna come home every night sad, angry, or frustrated, you’re gonna go through all the ranges of emotions, so you need that support system there to ground you, to get it, to get why you’re frustrated and to tell you to keep going, that the work you’re doing matters.

The other thing is that you have to be ready for the unexpected. You have to be ready for stuff to not go the way you thought it was gonna go. Entrepreneurs always try to tell people “oh just do it, just throw caution to the wind.” That’s not realistic for most people. For me, I had the idea for Colorstock for some time but didn’t act on it, because I needed to make sure that I was in a position that I could stick it out when it got bumpy. I could keep going for years because I made the sacrifices in advance: the cars was paid off, the bills were paid down, I did that stuff before hand so that when it started getting weird, I could deal with it.

MVC: Thank you so much for chatting with us today. As our final question, what’s next for Colorstock, and how can our readers support you?

We definitely want to continue to grow the catalog. We want to expand beyond the Americas, because people of color experience life differently in Canada, in South America, on the continent of Africa, in Europe. We also want to expand the types of things that we offer. Maybe we want two or three-second gifs, we like vectors, we like drawings, we like art. When we see little cute faces on apps and stuff, those spaces should also be brown, and reflect how people of color use the internet. We even want to explore commision-based photography, so we can work one on one with folks and get them those images they really want.

The reality is we can’t grow, we can’t be the stock photography of choice for our customers if customers don’t know that we’re here, and they don’t use us and don’t support the artists. Our artists will have the opportunity to continue to create awesome visuals and experiment in other mediums, as long as customers are willing to pay for their art. In doing that, Colorstock can continue to grow.

Work in creative, design, marketing or product? Colorstock images start at just $10 for a standard license and have beautiful, authentic, diverse images in collections across Arts, Food, Technology, Landscapes and Travel and more. Spread the word and use it for your next project!