Earlier this month Gizmodo Media Group deputy art director Elena Scotti was browsing Shutterstock for art to illustrate a story on fake news and stumbled upon a gem. It was not an illustration of the dangers of misinformation, but something entirely unique: a Photoshopped cowboy boot kicking the words “fake news” through a glass window. “I just thought wow this is so awesomely terrible, I love it,” she told me via email. Then she kept clicking and stumbled upon something even more spectacular: a dead fish skull photoshopped next to the same phrase, above the title “Fake News being chased by big teeth.” It was so comically bad that she had to share it with the world.
“I’ve been working in this field for about seven years now and have seen some really terrible stock art, but these stood out to me as being especially awful,” she said.
Weird stock-image discoveries like Scotti’s have been something of an art form on the internet. The insatiable economy for online content has spurred the everlasting demand for cheap, malleable images and created a vast workforce of freelance providers angling to make a buck off of the mountains they photographed on their vacation or their doodle of a flower. But, the same way a whale opens up its mouth to catch some plankton and ends up with 30 plastic bags lodged in its stomach, so, too, do the standard stock image websites struggle with quality control. For every handful of images depicting your typical snapshot of beautiful, diverse professionals at a conference table there is one of a shirtless man in a Santa hat, fondling his own nipples.
But when it comes to supplying imagery for the present-day news cycle, the stock image has hit a new stride because of the political buzzwords of Donald Trump. The current president’s repetitive speaking style has long been a point of fascination in the media, inspiring analysis from reporters and linguists alike. The simplified dichotomies he uses to explain complex issues are practically tailor-made for stock-image databases. (Take, for instance, this typical image of two traffic arrows pointing in opposite directions, pasted with various word pairings like “opinion/fact” “dumpster diving/food waste” and “clitoral orgasm/vaginal orgasm.”) Not to mention that the phrases he picks up from news stories and then uses over and over again in his own public appearances have also become an umbrella-like shorthand for current events. Earwormish vocabulary like “fake news” and the newly minted “alt-left” float from media headlines into Trump’s speeches, and ultimately, into the SEO terms of vaguely applicable images posted on sites like iStock and Shutterstock. The result is a kind of an ouroboros of online imagery, created by people with varying definitions of the terms in question.
Anne-Marie Miller is just a small part of that ouroboros. As the co-owner and creative director of U.K.-based graphic design firm Carbon Orange, she helps support her business by supplementing client work with an income from iStock sales. The process itself is flexible, and follows the same kind of work-at-your-will logic as most freelance-contributor gigs. Typically, whatever stock image site a photographer or illustrator signs up for provides rough guidelines for the subject matter and aesthetics that people are looking for in their photos. (Sites like Shutterstock, for instance, publish a list of restricted landmarks, events, and brands, as well as yearly trend reports. It also requires people to submit a few samples of their work before their account can be activated.) Contributors like Miller, in turn, use that information to decided what to post on their accounts.
“There are sort of two requirements around images in the industry,” she told me. “Timeless things that will always be useful, and then ethereal buzzwords.”
To keep up with the latter, Miller reads The Guardian and the BBC’s website, and follows along with political conversations on Facebook and Twitter. Ensuring that her submissions to the iStock website will earn the most attention possible from customers searching for images means that she must pick subject matter with longevity in the news cycle—topics like “ransomware” or “fake news.” Her approach to depicting these concepts is to create as neutral an image as possible. For ransomware, she opted for an image of a skull and crossbones on a computer, rather than your typical dark figure in a hoodie bathing in code. Her “fake news” image—which has sold to iStock customers in the U.S., U.K., and South Africa—follows a similar concept.
“I just kept it very general,” she said. “I tried not to make the images too specific, not have characters in them. Because then I think you’re in danger of alienating a whole group of people. You can’t cover everyone.”
On the other end of the spectrum is someone like Scott McGill, a 60-year-old retiree who is new to full-time work as a stock photographer and is the man behind Scotti’s Shutterstock find. Like Miller, McGill sources many of his stock-image contributions based on the news stories that resonate with him, both on cable television and through social media. But rather than try to illustrate the issues in a neutral way, his stock art—which is usually a collaboration between him and his wife, Nancy—often reflects his values as a Trump supporter. McGill’s depictions of fake news involving the cowboy boot and the big teeth were inspired by the fact that he’d grown tired of unreliable coverage of the president on cable news.
“CNN is very negative on the president. Fox is maybe too pro-president,” he told me. “So at any rate, it just seems like there truly is a lot of fake news out there for what I read or what I see or what I perceive. So [Nancy and I] thought, well, why don’t we create some images.”
Shutterstock’s team of reviewers from around the world approve each piece of content submitted to the site, based on intellectual property laws or issues of appropriateness, a site spokesperson said. If either customers or fellow contributors flag something on the site, the company reviews it on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to political-oriented content, the company “wouldn’t be able to speculate about what might get someone kicked off the platform.” The Shutterstock spokesperson also declined to provide statistics related to sales of political images.
In addition to submitting images that reflect his political values, McGill uses Twitter to reply to outspoken liberal celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell or Kathy Griffin with his stock images attached, mimicking a popular piggybacking technique that many Trump detractors and supporters use to gain more exposure. To O’Donnell, he sends images of doughnuts. For Peter Fonda, an atheist, he sends a photoshopped message-in-a-bottle that says, “Jesus loves you.”
“The pictures started before Twittering, but now they’re an integral part of our Twittering,” he said. “It’s entertaining, but also, I really do believe it’s upped our sales.”
McGill says he nets about 20,000 individual sales a year across various stock photo sites. (He says his photos can sell for anywhere from $1 to $600.) If anything, that kind of success is proof that one person’s Twitter joke can be another’s livelihood.
More generally, the vast difference between the approaches of contributors like Miller and McGill demonstrate something that reaches far beyond economics. That not even something as inane as a stock-photo site can escape the Trump-fueled partisan echo chamber that fuels the American media.