no shutterstock, natural hair does not resemble bison, brown bread and wilted sunflowers

February 20, 2018
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By Glitter, AFROPUNK contributor

The online stock photography world has changed over the last couple of years when it comes to showing diversity in its image choices. It has gotten better, but it still isn’t ideal when it comes to inclusion of diverse models and photographers within the online stock photo options. Years back, it was very difficult to find images of laughing, smiling young black people. When you searched for African American, you saw an array of images from white women in braids, angry black females, and other questionable content. Nothing that was worthy of editorial feature to match our uplifting and positive content.

While there are more options today, it’s sad to see that keywords are not properly identifiable on Shutterstock’s website. When searching for natural hair on an African American female, a few choices came up.

When selecting image #490956844 and then hitting the (i) button for similar images, it was shocking to see everything but textured, natural hair on a beautiful African American. What we did see was possibly some type of recognition software pulling up everything from brown woolly bison, whole wheat bread to a dried up sunflower.

It was absolutely revolting to see images of dirty animals, vegetables, toads, snakes, and dogs, where people should have been within the search. For hundreds of years since slavery, black people have been demoralized and compared to animals or deemed less than animals. These photo suggestions, while most likely not purposely done, reinforce that stereotype. We don’t know how Shutterstock decides to recommend photos.

These keywords have nothing to do with the photo recommendations of animals, dried flowers, and dogs.

We did see one model recommendation during this search, but it was also next to a suggestion of brown dirt.

To be fair, Shutterstock has gotten better and currently does have a ‘decent’ amount of art containing people of color, but the original image search and it’s suggested similar images, reinforces the stereotype about black hair, that it is not attractive.

Most of the similar searches for ‘Natural Hair African American’ will yield a light skinned model as shown here. Lighter skin and loose curls have always been more accepted than darker skin and tighter curls. Stock photography sights supply endless news outlets and blogs with imagery so it’s important for them to be inclusive of all shades and hair textures of people of color.

There should be a better research method that is in tune with keywords that are associated with Black American culture. Natural hair is a term that came out of Black Americans being forced through oppression to straighten their hair to fit into American society and the empowerment movement to wear your hair in its natural state despite public ostracization. Still, in 2017, we still hear complaints from employees that they were sent home for wearing their natural hair loose or in braids such as Zara and Banana Republic.

This photo research was brought to the attention of Shutterstock and they issued this statement via Facebook message. “Thanks for reaching out to us. I’m having a bit of trouble understanding your message. Would you mind clarifying and expanding on your inquiry? Thanks a lot; I look forward to helping you out more soon.”

Upon further clarification, they issued a second statement,”Agreed. This isn’t quite right! We’ll get this feedback to our team ASAP. Let us know if we can help finding alternatives.”

When asked for an email update on what they plan to do to fix this, they stated,”Thank you (for your) message. We’ve forwarded this (to) our content team. Unfortunately, we can’t give live updates of the changes.”

When it comes to finding fantastic photos of people from other nationalities, Shutterstock needs to step up their game. A user can find hundreds upon hundreds of images if the person is Caucasian, but if they’re another nationality, forget it…what pulls up can take a user hours to find the perfect photo to use.

Apparently, other users have expressed their distaste for Shutterstock’s image suggestions. This woman searched for ‘African children in the rain’ and Shutterstock suggested monkeys as similar image suggestions.

Google received criticism for their Photo app identifying a black couple as gorillas. Its product automatically tags uploaded pictures using its own artificial intelligence software.

As it stands, the photo suggestions are still visible on Shutterstock’s website, but we are hoping this is a wake-up call to improving the way that diverse images are handled within their database. We’d like to see the suggestions removed altogether and to include other beautiful displays of natural hair on African Americans. While we don’t own the word natural, we would rather share the image category with people of all nationalities rather than what they currently have available.