Stock photography first began to take hold in the 1920s, with private companies building vast catalogues of professional images, which could be licensed to individual customers at a cost. In the 1990s companies sold batches of these stock photos to clients on CD Roms. Today, there are millions of photographs accessible in the digital archives of brands like Shutterstock, iStock and Getty Images, available to decorate online journalism, billboards, newsletters, and just about anything else you could need.
While the subject matter of stock photos varies from dogs playing the piano in a nightclub, to a pensioner sipping wine through a straw (wearing a face mask and surrounded by toilet roll), the final destination of the pictures is even more unpredictable. Used on everything from articles with unfortunate headlines to advertising embarrassing products - how does it feel to be the face associated with it? Especially when you have signed away your right to say no.
The Independent spoke to two people who have been involved in stock image photography about what it was like, how much they earned and whether they would they do it again.
Jim Murtagh, 28, New York
"I did the stock photos back in 2016 when I was heavily involved in the comedy scene in New York. I knew a lot of comics that were doing stock photo shoots for this website, Reductress [an American satire website], and I thought it would be good for publicity so I signed up. The office happened to be near my doctor so I just went by one day after an appointment.
I’m not sure exactly how many photos were taken but the whole shoot lasted about an hour and I was paid absolutely no money to do it. At first I just had to stand near a window and smile to get some generic ‘nice boy’ shots but then they had me sit at a computer and make several different expressions to go with different headlines they would use me for.
They did not provide the clothes or props. I used my own computer, my own sweater, and my own dumb face. The experience was fine and shockingly quick. The photographers were super nice and kept thanking me for doing the shoot. It was overall a good experience.
I agreed that the images could be used for any article - I do not have any veto power on what they use it for. Over the years it has become clear that any piece about any man, alt-right troll, or incel screaming at women on the internet features me; the photos on my computer really sealed my fate. I don’t think I’ve been a good person in any of the articles.
One headline was ‘True Ally? This Man Died’. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to being a good person. That article is one of the few where I’m not doing anything gross or violent towards women. The worst one is probably ‘How to Spot the Twinkle in His Eye That Says He’s Going to Masturbate to You Later’ because it’s just so insanely gross and creepy. Doesn’t help that I’m smiling in the picture. True serial killer vibes.
It makes me laugh a lot when my photo pops up again. Even though I’m always a horrible person it’s just so over the top that I have to laugh. I think most people know the site is satire so hopefully they don’t actually think I’m a horrible human being. And people who know me also seem to get a kick out of it.
But people send me examples constantly. That might be the most annoying part about it all. When someone from college sends me an article like ‘Is this you?’ I just wanna say: ‘Yeah it was four years ago leave me alone we don’t talk anymore’. And my family is confused; I explained to my aunts and uncles that it is satire so the articles are fake but they still barely get it. They always tell me I should get a lawyer. They don’t understand why I’d do it willingly.
When you do stock photos you’re signing away your likeness. It’s not an acting gig where you’re playing a character that you signed on for. It’s just your face paired with potentially insane statements. I always wonder about other people in stock images when they go viral.
There’s the one you always see of the older guy with the beard that looks uncomfortable. He’s used for memes a lot. He’s probably just a normal guy that eats soup and loves his spouse but his face is so famous.
I really hope people don’t have a bad opinion of me from the photos. Someone on Twitter once said they probably use my photo for terrible headlines because I look like a nice person. I hope more people feel that way. I would definitely do it again if I had the chance (but I probably would comb my hair this time). I would tell other people; be careful if you ever decide to do stock photos. Don’t just do it cause the office happens to be near your doctor.”
Andi Dean, 26, North Carolina
"In total I have made a couple of thousand dollars being in stock images. I get paid anywhere between $250-$400 (£195-£315) for a shoot, and I’ve done maybe seven shoots over the course of five years. I started in 2014 and shot them once or twice a year until 2019. I was supposed to shoot this summer but it got pushed back because of Covid-19.
Each shoot lasted about four to five hours and around 2000-3000 photos were taken. About 400-500 of those made the final cut. But since I’ve done a few there are still probably over 2500 pictures of me out there for people to download. The majority are just me standing against a blank wall making different faces - happy, sad, angry, bored, surprised, stressed - any expressive emotion you can think of. I would also pose with all kinds of props - books, tablets, phones, laptops, food, drinks, even the most random items, like flags, maps, chalk, a piggy bank, crypto tokens, VR headsets, workout equipment, a guitar, and even an electric drill.
Depending on the time of year, we would shoot seasonal photos - holding things like Christmas presents, Halloween pumpkins, Valentine’s Day chocolates, and Easter eggs. They always provide the props but most of the clothes are my own. I also did my own hair and makeup for each shoot, and would bring a variety of shirts, dresses, pants, skirts, and shoes.
At the beginning of each shoot, I’d sign a waiver stating I gave up all rights to the photos. After that they are no longer mine. I never know where they are going to appear. I can see how this would bother some people, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t bother me. The photos I take are completely wholesome, with many bright colours and cute props. I don’t see how they could be used in an inappropriate way.
My stock photos have been in almost every country in the world. In America, I often see them in Facebook ads, Instagram posts, Pinterest pins, and even in popular apps like the ESPN Fantasy Football app and the Flo Period Tracker app. One popular Facebook page called I F****** Love Science once used my photo for an article - that went viral and was seen by millions of people.
I know a few people in Chicago that saw my picture on an ad in Chicago’s L-train. I have friends in Mexico that have seen my photos on Facebook ads for local businesses - an English school, a salon, and a pet-sitting service. My friends in Thailand and Australia also sent me screenshots of my photo being used for an English school.
There’s a cosmetics company in Poland that uses my photos often. My friend in Poland saw me on the cover of a Polish romance book. I found a copy on Amazon and had it shipped across the world so I could see it in person. There’s another one in Poland I don’t like that is an ad for a department store - I’m wearing a yellow dress and it would be the cutest photo except that I’m sticking out my tongue. That photo was an outtake,I had just been goofing around and thought the photographer had deleted it, and I was so embarrassed when someone recognised me.
I saw my photos a lot when I lived in Japan. I was visiting my local grocery store, and the cashier handed me a coupon. I flipped it over, and there I was! For two weeks, my face was all over the store - on the walls, at each register, and on coupons handed to every customer. The store staff treated me like a celebrity long after the campaign ended - and I got to keep hundreds of extra flyers and coupons to show to my family back home. Just last December, a dentist in Kuwait used a picture of me smiling and winking with a Santa hat on to promote a Christmas special.
There haven’t been too many bad uses of my stock photos. A beauty salon in Tokyo also used a picture of me covering my mouth for an ad about facial hair removal...my least favourite one is on the Flo period app, and ironically that’s one that I get sent a lot. I’m looking and pointing up, and it’s such an unattractive angle! But I’ve never regretted it for a single moment. The only thing I worry about is being used for a business or organisation whose values I do not support. I would consider getting in contact and asking them to remove it - but that hasn’t happened yet.
I will never get used to seeing my stock photos. I feel the same amount of joy each time someone sends them to me but I don’t feel famous because 99 per cent of people who see my pictures don’t know or care who I am. Stock photo modelling is the most anonymous type of modelling there is, because millions of people see your face and never even realise it is you. If you want to be a famous model, then stock photos are not for you.”