By Ellen McGirt
December 6, 2016

Now, more than ever, pictures tell the story. But is it the story you want told?

When my colleague, Grace Donnelly, discovered the photo of the same Asian woman appearing on a host of company websites – one, in particular, on their employee diversity and inclusion page – she decided to do a little digging.

“The woman in this photo has had an impressive career,” wrote Donnelly. “She’s worked in the tech industry, at a Fortune 500 company, in academic publishing, and for a Canadian regulatory agency — at least that’s the resume you could build with the company websites that use her likeness.”

Turns out the woman, who is looking up from her laptop with a crisp competence signaled by her tailored jacket, no makeup, and confident semi-smile, was a model. The picture is part of a stock collection of photos that any company might use if you don’t happen to have any photogenic Asian people around the office when you need them. (You can read the story here.)

The correct use of photos, particularly of women and people of color, has long been a sensitive issue for traditional publications, and the public has become increasingly critical of efforts they believe fall short.

Consider the photos used by the media when portraying black victims of police shootings. Critics say the images often unfairly portray the person as dangerous or deserving of extrajudicial punishment, rather than a fully realized person with a meaningful life. “My friends in the media, use this picture of #WalterScott in all his dignity,” tweeted South Carolina lawyer and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers yesterday, along with an image of Mr. Scott in his Coast Guard uniform in front of an American flag. “Not him running being gunned down from behind.” The trial of Michael Slager, the officer who shot the unarmed Scott last year, ended in a hung jury yesterday. The other result? Another deluge of images of Scott fleeing, or worse, his lifeless body.

But now, everyone is a publisher. Choosing images of humans to accompany a corporate message can be a complex exercise. And that’s the big message of Donnelly’s well-reported piece: When using images of underrepresented people in your corporate collateral materials, take extra time to consider the implications of your choices. You can start by becoming more sensitive to the inherent biases in both photography and the stock photo ecosystem. (Check out the Lean In Collection, a library of images that instantly widens your options for the depiction of working women of all hues and sizes.)

But if you want your employees and the public to know that diversity and inclusion are legitimate priorities, use images of real people in your actual workplace – employees, board members, investors, supply chain partners – when you sing your own praises. “Look within your company and support and salute and shine a light on your diversity champions,” Tiffany R. Warren, Senior VP, Chief Diversity Officer for Omnicom Group and Founder of ADCOLOR told Donnelly.

And skip the stock photos. “I think people know the difference,” she said.

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