What if, suddenly, you became a public figure, your face plastered on advertisements for instant coffee, or blow-up swimming pools, or some product that you still haven’t figured out because it’s all in a language you don’t recognize? What if, at the same time, nobody knew your name or anything about who you actually were as an individual, and you didn’t get paid for your public appearances? What if much of this was happening without your knowledge?
Such is the strange existence of a stock model, or at least the ones who are (un)lucky enough to blow up. Some of them have spoken out about their experiences in the industry—the surprising ways that your own image can haunt you, how to deal with being the face of a laxative, and the company policies that allow someone to become “a human emoji” for zero compensation.
Read on for the lessons some stock models have had to learn the hard way.
You Get Older, But Your Stock Image Stays The Same Age
Time changes a lot. You know what it can feel like to browse through your old Xanga or Myspace page? That
That’s just a taste of what’s experienced by some former stock models, like Victoria Bond, who revealed in
“At the same time that stock photos are universal fodder, they are almost without exception aspirational filler. Mainly because they attempt to dictate to us what we should buy while showing us how to live,” she writes. “Unlike fashion photography, which presents an unattainable fantasy of ever-fleeting seasonal trends, stock photos are nearly timeless representations of trends that never go out of style: happiness, normalcy, stability, parenthood.”
Your Avatar Will Wind Up In Some Unlikely Places—And You Have No Control Over It
Stock images are supposed to represent everyone, and in so doing, represent no one. In that way, they’re stripped of their human element, regardless of how many people they feature. But, even though they are anonymous, they are not faceless; the faces are of real people who have real feelings about the ads they find themselves appearing in.
Sometimes stock image models find what they appear in to be objectionable because they find the content offensive.
When asked if a picture of him ever ended up anywhere he truly objected to, stock image model Tony Northrup told Digiday, “I’ve found my images popping up in a few racist uses, some sort of racist article that happened to use a photo of me. Those are pretty rare.”
More often, though, models just find it strange to be the face of something that has nothing to do with their actual identities. Andrew Kimler, for example, wrote for Medium that his image was featured on HuffPost with an article titled, “Why Passing As Straight When You’re Bisexual Is A Privilege.”
Kimler was “fielding questions from everyone I know for a month because nobody these days reads past the byline,” he says. “It’s a great article; it’s just not mine.”
Then, of course, you have your cases of stock models who rue the day they handed over their rights to images of themselves. Niccolò
“Anyone with an internet connection and a bit of cash could buy the images and do whatever they wanted with them: They could make me a cigarette salesman; the face of a nationwide campaign to maim all horses; the lead image in an article about premature ejaculation,” he writes. “Worse still, because I’d signed away the photos I wasn’t getting paid for any of it.”
You’re Cut Off From The Benefit$ Of Fame
Although many would assume that having your image go viral would earn you some kind of financial reward, they’d be wrong. As Kimler points out, dishonest companies will gladly screw you over. Despite being assured on set that his image wouldn’t be mass-distributed, he had signed a release form giving the company ownership of the photos they took of him. Within a month, the photos started showing up everywhere—”plastered on newspaper ads, flyers, and yes, even billboards”—and he didn’t see a dime extra than the flat fee he originally agreed to.
“Personal assurances mean jack when you’ve signed a release,” Kimler wrote. “The company in question owned those images. It was theirs to do with as they pleased. And it pleased them to lie to me in order to promote their brand.”
This kind of exposure might typically have earned Kimler, an actor who was struggling financially, the fat paycheck he needed, but he had no such luck. “I brought it up to my agent and was met with a resounding [shrug],” he says.
Sometimes All You Can Do Is Laugh
Part of the hilariousness and intrigue of stock photos is their blandness. It’s actually fascinating to encounter something or someone so “normal,” so obviously constructed for general consumption. The ability to completely cancel out any trace of originality is impressive, and, frankly, bizarre. When you look at it long enough, you can even start to convince yourself that the vanilla-ness is performative—normcore photography, if you will.
Indeed, the rich narratives that some people have been able to extract from stock-image reality have achieved pop-culture status. (Consider, for example, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” which inspired the similarly themed offshoots “Women Resisting Delicious Cakes and Pies” and “Women Struggling to Drink Water.”)
While stock images might draw you in because they are aggressively unremarkable, they’re also free to be co-opted by brands who want to use them with some inkling of self-awareness, which grabs the attention in a different way.
In 2014, Velveeta started posting a series of stock images featuring one man—Tony Northrup, the model interviewed by Digiday—Photoshopped with various cheese dishes.
“In this particular set, I was mixing a salad in one photo. They photoshopped out the salad and swapped it in with a bowl of Velveeta,” he told Digiday. “The day before Mother’s Day I started getting text messages from people I hadn’t heard from in years saying, ‘Dude, you’re on the Velveeta […] page.”
One of the pictures shows him in bed with a woman, with a (Photoshopped-in) package of Velveeta between them. The caption reads, “Hey everyone! I’m married and I’m bringing to you a pro-marriage tip. My wife and I like our cheese the way we like our 300-thread-count
Turns out, the woman is his wife in real life, though they had nothing to do with the Velveeta image, aside from being pictured in it. They’re just a couple of photographers who shoot and teach, and occasionally show up in stock images. To ads like these, Tony appears to take the shrugging approach. “It’s funny,” he says, “a lot of unintentional things happened to me.”
Victoria Bond had a similar attitude when she learned she was featured in a laxative advertisement. “Because of my life-long commitment to regularity (the result of being raised by old people),” she writes, “I found being the face of a Dulcolax coupon deeply amusing.”
That’s the spirit! Sometimes laughter is the only option you have left.