sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

November 24, 2010

Dawn of a New Age in Stock Photography?

Filed under: society — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 3:45 pm

A few days ago I noticed a picture that accompanied a headlining MSN story.  The picture was that of a pretty Muslim woman in a headscarf holding a credit card.  The story was about credit.  How odd.  It’s not just that we never see a Hasidic man running errands or a Catholic nun taking public transportation in a stock picture.  We never see a black person in Afro-centric garb or an Indian woman in a sari.  Pictures of deadheads or a goths are not used to illustrate stories that are not specifically about deadheads or goths.  Stock pictures feature neatly groomed people of all colors donning the last three seasons of Gap and J Crew.

Are MSN editors trying to say that Islam is a race, and for that reason alongside the pictures of those perfect people of various pigmentation we need a picture of an identifiably Muslim woman?  But Islam is a religion, and a universalizing one at that.  A universalizing religion attempts to appeal to all people regardless of culture or place of residence.  By contrast, an ethnic religion, like Judaism or Shintoism, is a practice carried on by a single group of people.  So no, Islam is not a race, in fact, there are Muslims of all colors out there.

What I like about generic pictures of good-looking people in the media is that they are generic.  We don’t know what religion the models practice or what music they listen to.  We don’t know if they live in Tupelo, Providence or Salt Lake City.  The most we can deduce from the images is that the models have some sort of an urban/suburban background, but even that is not self-evident.  They are anonymous Americans, and every one of us can imagine himself to be one of them.  And yet, nobody is like them.  Nobody dresses this way, nobody has their picture-perfect hair.  People in the ads are idealized and kind of boring.  They are mainstream.  Subcultures define themselves against people in ads, and get attitudish when the mainstream picks up their sartorial inventions.

The ads are generically American.  I find it comforting for several reasons.  First, at the age when our society is so fractured, generic good-looking Americans in the media are a unifying factor.  Second, if I were to recognize my private choices in pictures available to everyone, I’d feel a bit naked.  A nice yuppie woman with similar color hair, on the other hand, is a good stand-in.



  1. The book series used at my son’s primary school back in the UK (stationed there 3 yrs) had an unrealistic number of Muslim characters. I mean, no Muslim kids at the school . . . I just chalk it up to yet more attempts at multi-culturalism.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — November 26, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    • Linda, happy belated Thanksgiving. Sorry for the delayed response time; we were traveling (by the automobile, of course!) last weekend.
      It doesn’t surprise me that the UK is ahead of us in PC game… I hear their schools suck just as much as ours.

      Comment by edgeofthesandbox — November 30, 2010 @ 5:40 am

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