Visual Culture
A New Agency Is Making Stock Photos Less White
By Yelena Keller
Jul 19, 2017 3:52 pm
Courtesy of TONL.

Courtesy of TONL.

Some of the most circulated and reproduced images of black people today are photos of lifeless bodies, mug shots, and grainy portraits of men cloaked in hooded sweatshirts and oversized jeans. The media has created a prevailing narrative of criminality largely through the manipulation of this kind of imagery. TONL, a new stock photography website hopes to combat these negative portrayals of black culture in an effort to expand the ways in which visual culture conveys black life.

Karen Okonkwo had the idea for TONL years ago; however, it was the atrocious killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling last summer at the hands of law enforcement that propelled her idea into action. As photographs and video clips of Castile and Sterling’s murders flooded news sites and social media platforms, Okonkwo and her partner, photographer Joshua Kissi found themselves returning to their once nascent idea with newfound urgency.

As Okonkwo laments, “There are 7.5 billion people in the world today and only about 2 billion identify as white, so it should be concerning to the world that we are perpetuating a form of imagery online that is largely representative of a single race.”

Courtesy of TONL.

Courtesy of TONL.

“We understood the impact that this imagery could have on the world,” explains Kissi. “Although there are major discrepancies when it comes to how people visually perceive black people in the United States, we knew that this was a global problem as well, and that there were people all over the world who don’t see imagery that is reflective of their daily lives.”

With this in mind, TONL has taken a distinctive approach to its site, one that allows users to pull from a diverse set of imagery, while also understanding and connecting with some of the faces and cultural experiences portrayed in the stock photos. The site’s official launch is slated for August 21st, but subscribers have been incrementally introduced to different aspects of the site over the past few months.

There are six content categories on TONL: Tone, Trust, Travel, Tradition, Taste, and Today.  Users may look to “Tone” for images related to health and wellness; when searching for representations of culture or family, they’d search under “Tradition.”

When signing up for the site subscribers are asked to answer a few questions about their own ethnic background, allowing Okonkwo and Kissi to gauge the demographics of their audience. Okonkwo notes that some may be surprised to learn that already, the second-largest subscriber base is Caucasian, closely following African-American.

Courtesy of TONL.

Courtesy of TONL.

In a portion of the website titled “Narratives,” TONL reflects the need for more earnest portrayals of black and brown life. Here, subscribers will find images accompanied by diaristic texts, wherein the subject of the photo describes the activities of an average day, defines their best qualities, and speaks sincerely about their passions.

“Being first-generation [American], black, and Muslim has taught me so much about my people’s resilience and how we continue to blossom,” writes Ismail, whose photo is featured in this section. Ismail admires his parents’ resilience. As immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia, they “thrived and in the face of blatant racism and discrimination for their faith,” a testament to their strength.

Each subject also writes ardently about their day-to-day lives. Ilaria—whose stock image here shows a young Egyptian-American woman grinning as she looks up from her novel, a glass of red wine in hand—describes herself as a “hungry, faithful, bliss junkie” who plays snooze-tag with her alarm in the morning. Scroll further, and subscribers will find Mekdes, an Ethiopian American whose face is framed by a wreath of dark braids; in her entry, she recounts spending her lunch break watching Netflix in Central Park.

Courtesy of TONL.

Courtesy of TONL.

Courtesy of TONL.

Courtesy of TONL.

With each entry the user is able to connect deeper with the subject—perhaps even discover mutual interests or shared experiences—creating a kind of engagement that truly does neutralize or subvert the stereotypes and prejudices that have marred photographs of black and brown people for so long.

TONL’s “Narratives” offer a much more generative engagement than the disengaged, doctored photographs that stock imagery sites are most often associated with. For editorial websites and advertising campaigns that rely heavily on stock imagery to represent broad and overarching themes, TONL offers a long-awaited diversification. Here, versatile images of people working on their laptops or riding their bike during a morning commute actually reflect the tonality of the real world.

Although a stock photography website is not a comprehensive solution to the monolithic portrayals of black life online, TONL is certainly not alone in the endeavor to recalibrate its industry. New stock photo agencies like CreateHER Stock and Colorstock are also broadening the field in terms of race and gender. Furthermore, the upstart service finds itself amongst a resurgence of media platforms—ABC’s popular TV series “Black-ish” and online arts criticism journal Arts.Black among others—that are pushing for more honest, complicated, and nuanced visualizations of black life. The impact of this imagery should not be overlooked, nor should the recognition that our norms are still in grave need of some disrupting.


Yelena Keller