Stereotypes And The Stock Photo Scientist

If you’ve only ever encountered stock photo scientists, you can’t really be blamed for assuming that all scientists are male, mad or maladjusted.

AsianScientist (Jan. 16, 2015) – As the editor of Asian Scientist Magazine, I am constantly confronted with the challenge of finding appropriate visual imagery to accompany the many articles posted on our site each week. How can I find a picture to accompany an article on obesity that does not make fun of the overweight? What kind of search terms would give me a good picture capturing abstract concepts like quantum entanglement? Is there another way to represent diabetes other than a person injecting him or herself with insulin for the nth time?

Even esteemed publications at the other end of the science communication spectrum are not spared the challenge of visual communication. The July 11, 2014 issue of Science featured transgender sex workers in Jakarta on its cover, an image that was widely condemned on social media as dehumanizing for the way that it cropped off the heads of the women in the photograph.

A picture paints a thousand words

Challenges aside, science communicators simply cannot afford to ignore the power of a good visual, especially in the internet age of attention-deficient readers. The text you have written might be the best thing since sliced bread, but unless someone first clicks on your article, nobody is going to know that. Often, a visually arresting image is the key to get to that first click.

More importantly, though, a good image can succinctly capture what the entire story is about and leave an impression on the reader. Some scientific journals have even made the move to provide what are called “graphical abstracts”, with varying degrees of success.

The unavoidable stock photo

Ok, so if pictures are an essential part of the science communication process, where can we find them? Thankfully, authors of scientific papers sometimes also release accompanying images. (Pro tip: If you want more news outlets to push your paper, do that.) Alternatively, there are plenty of images available on sites like Flickr that can be used under specific Creative Commons licenses. (Pro tip: Always remember to give attribution!) Sometimes, however, you just have to use a stock photo.

And really, there’s no shame in that. There are some excellent stock photos out there, and it is possible to use them well. That said, I have come across far too many photos that made me wonder, “Who is ever going to use that?”

Google: “scientist”

The reason stock photos exist is that we—the reader, the writer and the stock photo artist—all have a common cultural understanding, making it a fascinating place to examine stereotypes. As pointed out in this short post by the Scientific American blogger Compound Eye, the stock photos we see when we key in the word “scientist”, or any other word, are driven by what the algorithm thinks people actually want to buy.

In other words, most people seem to think of scientists as male, mad or maladjusted.

Something like this. Credit: Shutterstock.
Something like this. Credit: Shutterstock.

Although corrective action has been taken to address the lack of female representation in science (like the all-female minifig science Lego set), female stock photo scientists are inevitably blond Caucasians with inexplicably untied, long, flowing hair.

When an Asian woman is in the lab, she is tagged “technician“. Alternatively, she must be supervised by an ominous male colleague, headlessly looming over her shoulder.

Other thing that bugged me was what many stock photos pictured scientists doing. They are either smiling at the camera, or staring very hard at colored liquids in test tubes. Also, nobody wears gloves. I don’t know about you, but much of my smiling during my grad school days was done outside the lab, most of my reagents were colorless and I always, always wore gloves. (Right, lab safety officer?)

The truth in humor

One area which seems to have gotten science stereotypes right is humor. From the irreverent witticisms of Adam Ruben’s Experimental Error column in Science Careers to the widely read (and shared) PhD Comics by Jorge Cham, its the funny side of life in the lab that seems to translate well in narrative and visual formats, and may well be the best way to change stereotypes about scientists.

So scientists, rather than be offended at how wrong stock photo artists seem to get it, why don’t you channel that energy into something positive and create more accurate images of your own? Happy doodling!

This article is from a monthly column called From The Editor’s Desk(top). Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pascal/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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