When do image agencies have a duty to represent ethnic and gender diversity in their photos? Adrian Weckler put the question to Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer, who has opened up an office in the capital employing 40 staff
The figure of one billion resonates with Jon Oringer. That’s the number of stock images his company, Shutterstock, has sold commercially to people looking to populate their websites or brochures.
It also happens to be his net worth. Shutterstock’s growth has been stellar in recent years. The firm he started in 2003 with a few of his own photographs now has close to 200 million photos for sale, with 1.8 million customers and 1.4 million new images every week being uploaded by some 350,000 contributors around the world.
Now, the New York photographer has opened a base in Dublin where 40 people will work on tech-related issues his company faces. These include some of the things the company has to keep up with, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, if it wants to stay ahead of customer demand.
Shutterstock is a little like Getty Images – it’s now one of the world’s repositories for imaging. Is there a point at which such a service assumes responsibilities over and above its primary mission to host images that are commercially popular?
In particular, what are its responsibilities when it comes to diversity?
“It’s kind of a philosophical question,” Oringer says, sitting in Shutterstock’s Clarendon Street office.
“We don’t want to drive people towards something that they’re not necessarily looking for. But at the same time we make it very clear to our contributors that we are a global marketplace and we want globally-diverse content.”
The issue arises in the results you get for searches. Type in the word ‘man’, for example, and almost all the photo results are of a white man, roughly between the age of 25 and 35.
It’s the same with ‘woman’. Almost all the suggested search results are young white women.
To find photos of ethnically diverse people, or older people, you have to start inputting specific terms such as ‘black man’ or ‘middle-aged woman’. (For the latter search, if you want more diversity than a screen full of 40-year-old white women, you’ll need to add even more specificity, such as ‘middle-aged Asian woman’.)
Is this an issue for a stock photo agency? Is it fair to ask the question?
“I think it’s difficult,” says Oringer. “If you want to find diverse content, you can search for it and you will find it. But you search for the most popular results using very broad keywords, you’ll see what the most popular downloads are. For us to change that doesn’t make much sense. Because that is what people are downloading at that moment.”
There is something of a Catch-22 here. Of Shutterstock’s 1.8 million customers, many may have specific target queries based on their demographic sensibility. But many are surely just looking for a passable result to a general query.
That content is there in some quantity in stock photo agencies such as Shutterstock. But it’s not quite as easy to get as the dominant white themes.
“We can offer more diverse content at the right time and place,” says Oringer. “We do have some collections. We have promoted that content. But we can’t necessarily change what the most popular downloads are unless they become the most popular. So it is a fine line. We try to balance that.”
Oringer says that the diversity quotient is naturally evolving of its own accord. Put in the search term ‘lawyer’ or ‘doctor’, for example, and you’ll get a fair smattering of women in the search results, even if virtually all of them are young and white.
Shutterstock also has curated collections of photos that promote photos which, Oringer says, wouldn’t ordinarily get “surfaced”. (This month, as it’s ‘Pride Month’, there are numerous rainbow and same-sex themes that may not otherwise be noticed in general searches.)
“What we can do with these hand-curated collections is to put these images in front of people to try and drive awareness,” Oringer says.
“So I think over time, the popular download results will change as people drive them.”
Oringer says that the company has the tools to track diversity – both ethnically and on a gender basis – within its image stock cache, but isn’t aware of what the breakdowns in such diversity currently are.
Is it fair to ask this of the company?
From Oringer’s perspective, he runs a company that is answerable to shareholders and is simply reflecting what people want to download.
On the other hand, once your firm becomes one of the world’s main image repositories, perhaps its role in how we represent one another visually becomes closer to a public interest issue.
Whatever the direction, Shutterstock is a long way down the road from the early days when he went out to personally shoot images that might be commercially attractive to other businesses.
“I was looking to shoot things to make concept images, ones that conveyed some sort of message,” he says.
Like the businessmen doing hurdles, I ask?
“Something like that, yes.”
He says he doesn’t shoot for the site anymore, even though a good portion of the first 30,000 images on the service were his.
In terms of growth, Shutterstock is booming. Its most recent financial earnings pointed to 46pc year-on-year increase in images available on the site, with 44 million paid downloads in 2017. It’s not just still photos, either, with nine million video clips now available.
This flies in the face of those who might argue that photography “doesn’t sell” in an internet era, where so much is supposedly available free online.
“We keep increasing the number of images we sell and the price per image we sell them at,” says Oringer. “If you look at the average price per image, it keeps rising. So contributors have a big opportunity with us to sell those images to everyone from independent graphic designers all the way up to the biggest corporations in the world.
“You have to understand that companies need more and more content. You can’t just test one ad and one piece of content anymore. You need to test multiple creative options through A, B and C tests. Because your competitors are doing that. So you’ll fall behind if you don’t.
“All of those pieces of content need images. We’re the easiest way to get them, because the site’s getting faster and faster every day.”
But isn’t this the internet? Aren’t images ripped off? With the advent of new technology, times have changed on that front, Oringer says.
“There’s a reason why people buy images from us,” he says. “They have to. If they don’t and they get caught then it’s going to cost them more than the few dollars to buy that image. So they know their company is safe if they buy legitimately. They won’t get cease and desists orders or get sued.
“Companies that are out there downloading images [illegally], it comes back to bite them and they become converted to a licensing model very soon after that, just like iTunes changed music.”
What about Google Images, though? Getty, which is a competitor of Shutterstock, has long borne a grievance against the tech giant for the way it allows people to find and download images which aren’t paid for.
Oringer doesn’t feel quite so worried about it.
“They’re often watermarked and that’s how we protect against that,” he says. “I mean, those images are still available if you look. But what Google has done recently is to make it a little bit harder.”
Shutterstock looks set to continue to grow, with expansion currently happening into news and current events, such as sports and fashion events.
The company that Oringer leads has almost always been profitable, slowly building up its sales and never taking on a big venture capital round.
Publicly traded now, Oringer still has a large chunk of the shares.
But the goal, he says, remains fundamentally the same.
“The challenges are around the product, to make sure that users are getting local content, the right content and our ability to surface all of that. We’re getting better at that every day.”