Four years ago this week I was working on a human-trafficking awareness course for public health workers. When I started, I had an inkling that finding images might be difficult, but I didn’t have time or budget to hire a professional photographer. I had no choice but to scour a popular stock photography website.

Because victims of human trafficking are so varied, I needed stock images of white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian men, women, and children of all ages. On top of finding the right ethnic, age, and gender mixes, I also needed images that depicted concepts like poverty, abuse, vulnerability, and isolation—not your typical business-friendly fare.

Much to my disgust, I had to add stigmatizing keywords to my searches to get anything even remotely resembling a usable image. While disturbing, terms like “black female prostitute,” “illegal farm worker,” or “neglected hungry Asian children” simply yielded more images than I could work with.

But don’t get me wrong: the images I found may have had the right ages, genders, and ethnicities, but they were far from ideal. Many were clumsy, overwrought depictions of the sad realities they were intended to portray. Others looked like a high fashion magazine spread with women in sexualized poses. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to use clever hacks to make them work.

The thing that disturbed me the most was that I was trying to portray life and death experiences of real people—and it was nearly impossible to honor them with authentic images.

Why authentic images matter for eLearning

My experience with finding appropriate stock imagery for this human-trafficking project made one thing crystal clear: Stock images have a huge diversity problem. It wasn’t just that it was difficult to find the right physical attributes; it was that the images I found only depicted one narrow aspect of diversity, and often did so in absurd or disrespectful ways.

In our daily lives we encounter people who have more than just physical, or primary, expressions of diversity such as gender, ethnicity, physical ability, body type, age, race, and sexual orientation. There are many more aspects of diversity that encompass socio-economic status, family background, and religion—just to name a few (Figure 1).

Dimensions of Diversity 

Figure 1: There are many aspects of diversity

(Based on a model from Boston College’s Diversity & Inclusion definitions)

In a marketplace where you can see literally thousands of iterations on the same basic concepts, most stock images can’t afford to be too specific. To be useful, they need to be broadly appealing. This emphasis on broad appeal leads to literal, often absurd or stereotyped depictions that may portray one or two primary dimensions of diversity, but tend to dismiss most of the secondary (center ring) or tertiary dimensions (outer ring) in the model above.

For instance, here’s a sample of the results I found when I searched three well-known stock-photo websites for the term “diverse workplace” (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A sample of typical results from a search on stock-photo websites for “diverse workplace”

I was hoping to see images of people of mixed genders, ages, body types, physical abilities, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Instead what I found was a sea of model thin, attractive, fashionably dressed 20- to 30-year olds. Were different genders and racial make-ups shown? Yes. Would I characterize the results as an authentic portrayal of diversity? Not even close.

As learning practitioners we must understand that stock images are one-dimensional and painfully literal because they’re targeted for marketers to use in selling products and services. They’re simply not designed to authentically portray depth or nuance, or to inspire deep thinking.

And yet authentic engagement and inspiration are exactly what eLearning designers look to stock images to help them do. We’re reliant on these images because eLearning is a visual medium. eLearning is most effective when it establishes the credibility of its message right up front with a carefully orchestrated balance of words and visuals that convey ideas, stir emotions, and inspire people to change their behavior or take action. When the subtext of the images we use are false or exaggerated, the course’s credibility goes right out the window—along with any spark of emotional connection.

How can we assert our credibility with learners and engage them in meaningful change by using stock images that are full of clichés and stereotypes?

We’re the problem and the solution

It’s pretty clear that stock imagery’s diversity problem mirrors our society’s larger problems with inclusion. But if we accept that stock images mirror our social flaws, then we must also accept our collective responsibility in changing what’s reflected.

For eLearning designers, that change starts at home. If we want to change the picture of diversity, we need to:

  • Recognize and acknowledge our own biases
  • Use that recognition to turn a critical eye to the visual language we use in our work and make wiser choices
  • Have serious, sometimes uncomfortable conversations with clients, managers, peers, and stakeholders about the organization’s culture and depictions of diversity. Free stock images can be a great resource, but if an organization truly values diversity they need to step-up with the budget to help designers depict it more authentically.

We also need to commit to scouring all available resources for better, more realistic images—and working creatively with what we find to help them connect with learners.

Finding more authentic stock imagery

What follows are a few ideas for tackling these practical aspects of working with stock images.

Take your own images

When hiring a professional photographer is out-of-scope for the project, consider taking the photos yourself. This approach may not work for every eLearning course (or for your work environment), but it can be an effective and affordable alternative to using stock images. Taking your own images also gives you ultimate creative control over settings, subjects, and how you depict diversity in your workplace. It’s also a great way to build credibility and engagement since many people relate to seeing themselves and their co-workers portrayed solving real problems, in their actual work environment.

Not a picture-taking pro? There are tons of free videos and articles that can walk you through the basics of taking great photos with your smartphone or digital camera.

One caveat: Before you start snapping photos, check with your company’s legal team and study up on the dos and don’ts of photographing co-workers (or even models) on company property to make sure you can use the images you take in your course.

Buy from specialized sites

If custom images aren’t an option, there are a growing number of alternative stock image sites that specialize in avoiding the ridiculous clichés for which most stock photography is, deservedly, mocked (looking at you, Women Laughing Alone with Salad).

  • Lean In Collection by Getty Images: Jointly curated by and Getty images, this collection focuses on authentic depictions of women and girls.
  • Blackstock: Currently in beta, this site’s goal is to provide images focused on respect and authentic representation of black culture. (Editor’s note: Link currently unavailable except to users in the beta.)
  • Blend Images: Founded by a consortium of commercial photographers and managed by industry veterans, Blend specializes in ethnically diverse, culturally relevant imagery.
  • Offset (by Shutterstock): Offers high-quality imagery curated from international artists and award-winning photojournalists.

Avoid literal search terms

Fresh sources for stock imagery are always helpful, but finding quality images is the product of better searching. Keywords matter, and being too literal often leads to literal depictions that are riddled with stereotypes.

For example, think of an accountant. Did you picture a young white man in a business suit using a calculator? Well, that’s what Shutterstock thinks an accountant looks like, as do most stock image sites. And while there’s nothing offensive about this portrayal, it’s a stereotype that ignores the reality of women accountants of all ethnicities and ages.

Figure 3: Use different search terms to get more diverse images

In the example on the right in Figure 3, rather than using literal keywords, I used keywords that focused on an authentic mood and setting. The resulting image says, “Here’s a glimpse into the personality and culture of our organization.” The lighting, background, and subject all come across as a real and credible glimpse into a modern workplace. There’s no calculator or spreadsheet in sight to spoon-feed learners.

Adding more authenticity to stock images

You don’t have to use stock images “as is.” You can make them look different, and more true-to-life.

Remove the background

One of the biggest beefs I have with stock images are the corny backgrounds. Many eLearning designers don’t have photo-editing knowhow, nor the time to learn sophisticated tools for removing these backgrounds. One of the easiest workarounds is to use tools like PowerPoint’s built-in photo editor which was designed to help anyone do lightweight photo editing.

In Figure 4, I removed a photo’s subject from an existing background (Before) and placed her into a more appropriate context (After).

Figure 4: Change the background

Removing backgrounds also gives you the flexibility to blend stock images with your own images, as in this example from Tracy Parish (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Blend stock images with your own photographs

(Photo of woman and child licensed courtesy of Shutterstock, background photo courtesy ofTracy Parish)

The woman and baby in the foreground are stock images Tracy purchased from Shutterstock, but the office background is a photo of her own workplace she snapped with her camera.

PowerPoint is one of my go-to tools, but there are scores of free or low-cost photo editing tools that can give you even more features and greater control, including PhotoScissors, GIMP, and Pixlr.


When a stock image doesn’t fit the tone of the subject matter of your course, the effects can range from mildly distracting to downright offensive.

That’s where stylizing an image can help transform it from disconnected to evocative. There are countless free mobile apps and online tools with image filters for creating special effects like an aged look, or this shadowy Polaroid effect I used in my human trafficking course (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Use a photo-editing filter or style to change the mood or effect of a stock photo


Stuck using an image that’s generic or unrealistic? Try de-emphasizing it by placing it into a collage of images (Figure 7).

Figure 7: You can de-emphasize generic images by putting them into a collage

(Nurse photo licensed from Shutterstock, newborn and hospital exterior images from Morguefile, IV and nursing staff images from Dollarphotoclub)

Not only are image collages are a great visual storytelling device, they can also help you blend images that are more literal with ones that are more allegorical.

Alternatives to stock images

You aren’t limited to stock photos. Here are some other choices.

Use illustrations

Many organizations are reluctant to use illustrations—particularly character illustrations—because they fear the results will look childish. But illustrations can offer a visual design trifecta that’s hard to beat: mood, personality, and cross-cultural appeal. Much like photos of people, character illustrations convey mood based on style, so the trick with making them work is to choose a style that’s suitable for your material and the intended audience.

In Figure 8, the styling of the patient (Before) is too quaint for the subject matter and the character is clearly a young, white female. By switching to a simpler, hand-drawn style (After), this illustration offers a more serious take with an ageless, cross-cultural appeal since the subjects’ ages and ethnicities are more open to interpretation.

Figure 8: Use hand-drawn style for mature, inclusive illustrations

Use icons

Icons are simple symbols or pictograms that are representative of concepts like these fire-safety icons pictured in Figure 9. Icons can be an efficient way to convey key ideas without detracting from the content.

Figure 9: Icons convey ideas or concepts, without taking away from the content

(Image comp courtesy of Dreamstime)

Most stock images sites sell themed sets of vector images that you can easily scale without a loss of quality, but you may need some photo-editing skills and software to break out the specific icons you need for your course. Another option is to create your own icons in PowerPoint just by drawing and grouping simple shapes. This gives you a lot of creative control, but does take some time to execute.

When using icons, keep the focus on your course content by:

  • Choosing icons that are of the same basic style and color palette
  • Only using icons where they can effectively support the content. If the subject matter is complicated because it’s nuanced, using an icon may not resonate with learners.

Call to action

Most of us don’t have the luxury of dismissing stock images from our design repertoire. For better or worse, workplace eLearning is heavily reliant upon stock-image-based designs.

The lack of diversity in stock photography isn’t just an image problem or a business problem; it’s a cultural problem. If we want to play some small part in addressing this cultural problem, we need to help people think differently, and one of the biggest ways to do that is to change the visuals we’re using so they better reflect the diverse lives we live.

As I see it, it’s up to us to use our design powers for the greater good—to shine light on all aspects of the human experience, particularly the darkest corners where learning can lead to real, positive change.