stock photos

Earlier this year, something caught my eye: a photo at the top of a story about COVID on The New York Times website. I remembered this image. The same one had been placed above a different COVID story, just a few days before.

A hospital patient sits up in bed while a nurse in blue attends to them. Simple, nothing notable, unsensational. It matched the topics of the stories well enough, helping illustrate the stress on two local hospitals under COVID, respectively. But the photo was generic: at a glance, the scene could have been from any hospital, anywhere in the world, even though this universalism was not the point of the stories underneath. A primary cause of this generic feel was the lack of motion in the picture—no sign of activity, no trace through stillness.1 The patient sat, and the nurse stood, seemingly inert.

Across the board, it’s rare to see a photo that contributes to the news story it accompanies. We are given stock photos, or else photos of famous figures dated months prior to the date of the story, like in a second-rate tabloid. At best, these juxtapositions are lazy; at worst, they are inaccurate or misleading. And even when publishers do supply quality photographs, they too often inundate readers with images that break our hearts, overwhelming us without any push toward transformation. Does all rubble eventually cease to astonish, becoming one more fragment to scroll past?

Knowing little about how photos are added to stories, I wonder what’s going on. Are these indeed stock photos? Or does the photo editor just forget to upload the day’s new batch sometimes? Worst of all possibilities, have some of the weekday photographers and editors been let go, either dismissed for their political opinions, or because of staffing cuts?

Is money really the issue? The Times must have some photo budget right now, as evident, for example, in the multi-page spread of lush green plantlife in their Feb. 27 print story on Congo’s peatlands (web version: “What Do the Protectors of Congo’s Peatlands Get in Return?”), with photos by Nanna Heitmann. We haven’t yet run out of colored ink.

More brainspace should be devoted to the way stories, headlines, and photos work together. As Stuart Hall puts it when writing about news, “The purpose of showing the images is, in the end, interrogative. The images are designed to make us ask questions. […] They establish a hierarchy of meanings.”2 To my view, if a story’s photograph adds nothing of political or affective purpose, then maybe it shouldn’t be run at all. This troubles me. I don’t like the idea of stories without pictures, but I might prefer this to a world in which we are conditioned to dismiss pictures.

I have little say in the matter, but I think photography is as important, or maybe more important, than the text of the news. From portraits to infographics, both the images and their captions have potential to be the story, and to change the story.

I want to see even more money going to photographers, I want more resources allotted to the photo editors for their work, and I want the work of writing captions to be appreciated as the crucial job it is.

  1. I thought this story was a memorable counterexample.
  2. From the preface to Black Britain: A Photographic History, ed. Paul Gilroy, pp. 8–10 (London: Saqi in association with Getty Images, 2007), 5–10; quoted here as it appears in the Stuart Hall collection Writings on Media: History of the Present, ed. Charlotte Brunsdon (Duke University Press: 2021), 23.