Getty Images’ Pam Grossman explains why we need the new Lean In photo collection

Getty Images, the Seattle-based stock photo agency, last week launched a “library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them.” Curated jointly by Getty and LeanIn.org, the nonprofit founded by Sheryl Sandberg, the collection features more than 2,500 images “of female leadership in contemporary work and life.”

Why is a stock photo collection needed to help womanhood lean in? Because, as the ever-aspirational Facebook chief operating officer puts it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And Sandberg apparently does not see much leadership in the current visual representation of women in the media.

The new move is not just an exercise in raising social consciousness. It sounds like smart marketing. The collection will be available to the ad agencies, businesses, media and other outlets that routinely turn to Getty’s massive database of still imagery. And Pam Grossman, Getty’s director of visual trends, says clients have been clamoring for “a wide spectrum of what it means to be a contemporary woman.”

Q. What’s the problem that you have been trying to counter?

Grossman: The problem is with gender cliches and gender stereotyping. We’ve seen a lot of images of women and girls, not just in stock photos but in the media at large that seem rather dated, cliched, inauthentic. And there are so many wonderful alternatives.

The Lean In Collection has both new images and content we already had.

What we are really looking to do is to highlight the strongest content. It’s not about trying to diminish; it’s about expanding horizons, increasing the possibilities for how women and girls can and should be represented.

How did you identify the problem?

Some of it was observational. But my team is responsible for studying visual trends globally, and we noticed really positive trends from a sales perspective: In 2007, only seven years ago, our top image was of a woman lying around naked, barely covered by sheets — a very classic objectified woman.

The images that are our top sellers today show women who look like they are fully involved in and responsible for the direction of their own lives.

So if I were to search for “businessman” as opposed to “businesswoman,” would I find equivalently stereotypical images of men?

I think what we are seeing today is a real evolution that applies to both men and women. Gender cliches affect all people. We are really careful to have pictures of men in the Lean In Collection, too. You need strong pictures of both. Supportive fathers, fathers who are very nurturing, men in partnership with women.

The old image might be of a man at the head of the table, with a woman listening in rapt attention.

The Lean In Collection has women who are speaking, leading meetings and showing through their gestures that it’s their ideas that are being expressed.

A picture has always been worth 1,000 words, but are images playing a more important role than even in contemporary life?

Undoubtedly. We are in such an image-rich culture through social and digital media in general. The amount of access we have is unprecedented and unfathomable to us. Images have become the universal language. Women are the primary users of social media, in control of the images they put out of themselves on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest. They are conveying from the bottom up what the standards of beauty should be. The old model was very top down. Now women are demanding to be seen, and they want authentic images of their own lives reflected back to them in advertising.

Don’t many of the images that teenage girls, for example, put out of themselves play into those old stereotypes, though?

I can’t speak to that. What is interesting to me is the positive things that are happening. We are offering alternatives, inspirational tools. This is a real solution.

The final published result is all about an editorial decision, though, isn’t it?

You have to remember that Getty has clients in over 100 countries in the world, at almost every ad agency you can imagine. The images are not just for editorial purposes.

What I’m seeing is how much this content is resonating with them. Ever since the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign [launched in 2004], people have been wanting real bodies, real people and much more inclusive points of view.

I asked a friend (and working mother) recently what a picture of a working mother would look like, and she immediately said, “Harried.” Aren’t you just swapping one stereotype for another, more positive one?

Remember that, in our industry, the images are evolving really rapidly. We study the visual landscape and have to make sure our clients have the images that will be most useful for them in their various projects.

We’ve got lots of feedback that people are tired a) of the idea that “having it all” is at all possible; and that b) women should constantly be in this state of struggling for perfection.

The Lean In images are moments. They aren’t perfect, but they are moments when the protagonist of the picture feels like the center of the story and she has agency.

They are not all shiny, happy moments; there is a host of facial expressions.

Have you been tracking the choices people have been making? Do you have any evidence that outlets are choosing the Lean In images over the old ones?

We’re waiting to see how things collate. One piece of the story I’m really proud of is that we’re donating part of the proceeds back to LeanIn.org and for two new grants for images showcasing female empowerment.

Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at The Washington Post magazine. She joined the magazine in 2014 after spending two years as the editor of the daily Style section, with a focus on profiles, personalities, arts and ideas.

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