Using stock photos is not always the best option

The recent debacle over the front cover photo of the Government’s 2019 budget document was a clear illustration of the risks organisations take when using pictures from a stock library.

In this case, the Kiwi mother and child featured on the cover had left Auckland for what the mum said was a better life in Australia.

The mother and child featured in the Government’s Wellbeing Budget document have left New Zealand for Australia and are apparently feeling much better.

As an editor I have frequently searched my publisher’s picture archive for a suitable generic photo to illustrate a story; or I’d go online to trawl through a commercial library such as Getty (where the Wellbeing Budget photo was reportedly sourced).

For example, if I was preparing to run a feature on Auckland property prices at the NZ Herald I could scour its library for a suitable picture such as an Auckland cityscape. But with so much building going across the city Aucklanders would know in a heartbeat if the picture I selected was current or years old (not a good look). So I’d often ask a snapper to take a shot of the city to avoid any flack.

Perhaps I’d want a photo of people at a Mall for a story on the decline of bricks & mortar retail shopping. Easy, there’s lots of those to choose from.

But which mall am I looking at on the stock shot site? Is it even in New Zealand? Who are those shoppers? Are they still alive? How about that little boy with the parents? Could he be caught up in a family dispute or injured after the photo was taken? Is the retailer in the background even still in business? All these questions and more go through my mind when selecting a generic photo for publication.

So when it came out that the mother and daughter on the cover of the Budget report had moved across the Ditch it must have caused a moment of discomfort for the person who selected the photo (let alone the one who signed it off as suitable for use).

Working in the media keeps you humble because everyone in this game is a split-second decision away from a red face.

If one day you find yourself in a similar situation, check to find out who the people are in the photo that’s caught your eye by contacting the agency or the photographer. As for the Budget report, I would…

1) Have a photo taken of a lady and child (models) specifically for the report and told them what the shoot was for.

2) If that isn’t an option; use a stock shot where people can’t be identified.

3) To play it 100% safe use something even more generic that borders on being meaningless. Boring – yes; but safe as houses. After all, it is a Budget report, not the cover of a retail magazine.

Shoot fresh

There is an element of risk when using archive or stock shots from a commercial library when it comes to government, corporate publications and advertising.

Firms I worked for while in corp comms would hire professional models to pose as staff and we’d place them in the workplace for promotional shots (factories, construction sites, etc…). 

The last thing we wanted to feature were genuine members of staff who could leave the firm and use the photos to embarrass the company. Or, worst case scenario, be injured on the job, as the media would have a field day (particularly if photos of the injured person were used in the annual health & safety report).

Thirty years ago one could use a stock shot and there would be little chance of anyone tracking down the people in the pictures.

Stock photo libraries have their place; but in our connected world – particularly in New Zealand – it is possible to identify models and for them to see where and how their photos are used; and to make themselves known to the media should they be so inclined.