Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Black and white pictures - Anne Rooney

Only pink people have anatomy
This will be a short post, or a short grumble, as this issue is taking a lot of my time at the moment.

I write a lot of non-fiction which is illustrated from picture libraries, as well as a lot which is illustrated with commissioned artwork and some that combines the two. At the moment, I'm working on a series that combines the two. The publisher has an aim of at least 25% non-Caucasian people in images and a 50:50 gender split, which is fine. With commissioned illustrations it's easy to achieve, obviously. With images sourced from picture libraries, whether photos or artwork, it's incredibly difficult. The (cheap) picture libraries don't have a good diverse mix of images. It's a little easier with photos, often (but not always), but virtually impossible for anything but the most generic and anodyne illustrations.

For example: search on Shutterstock for 'geologist'. It displays 100 images per page. Not all have people in, but at least half do. Of those, one is clearly female and one is possibly not-Caucasian (but could be Mediterranean or tanned). These are photos. Search for 'baby'; five out of the first 100 are non-Caucasian.

'Baby' is about as generic as you can get. Search toenails (don't — it's not a pretty sight) and they are all on white feet.

 Illustrations are just as bad, with some subjects completely unrepresented by non-white characters. One of the books I'm working on is about the human body and will use vector artwork. Body parts, organs, activities—all seem to be almost exclusively white concerns in picture-library-land. You'd think people of other ethnicities didn't have bones, brains or babies if you went by the pictures you can buy to show these things.

An obvious solution is to be more precise, but that brings up other problems. Specifying 'black' often just brings up black and white images rather than images of black people. 'People of color' delivers images in color with people in. Of course, it should be unnecessary to specify; there should be no massive default to Caucasian. Most alarming of all, 'black' sometimes delivers a completely different type of image. A search for 'black fetus' (sorry, but you have to use American spellings on these sites to get anywhere) brings up foetuses with guns (how is that even a thing?) and miscarried or aborted foetuses. This is truly disturbing and clearly symptomatic of some far deeper malaise than just an absence of diverse photographers or artists putting their material on Shutterstock.

Our budget will go largely on creating images that redress the balance of diversity in the book, making up for the short-fallings of the picture libraries. That's not how it should be. Next time you see a book that doesn't have enough diversity in the photos or library artwork, don't blame the publisher or author—blame the picture libraries.

Anne Rooney
Out now: Dinosaur Atlas
Lonely Planet


Penny Dolan said...

Interesting, Anne, and an important point that needs pointing!

Anne Booth said...

That's very interesting and important.

Candy Gourlay said...

Quite astonishing! I've run into that problem when trying to find generic photos to buy or source from commons to illustrate a blog post. Search for 'children' or 'babies' and there are no brown skinned children unless you search for specific nationalities ... and then you get these children as illustrations of poverty or victims of some kind of cataclysm.

Leila rasheed said...

Wow. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. :(

Enid Richemont said...

You've said something really important here which I think most writers are unaware of - I certainly was. Needs to go viral.

Gill James said...

Yes, I've just looked on pixabay and got similar results, though perhaps slightly better.