A joyful woman stands by the shore, her arms spread wide, an exultant silhouette against a yellow sunset. This woman with open arms comes in many forms. Perhaps she has short hair, or a ponytail, or freckles. She might be in an autumnal forest, or on a snowy mountaintop, her cheeks pink with rapture. Perhaps she is, in fact, a man, on the open road with a backpack full of freedom. But in every guise and every location, the meaning of her pose is unmistakable: whatever this woman is having, you want it.

Once I noticed the Open Arms Woman, I started seeing her everywhere, on health food adverts and in travel agency windows, women’s magazine articles and dietary supplement bottles. She is a blank slate that only says one thing: happiness.

On a regular day, we see hundreds, if not thousands, of images like this. Unlike traditional photography, these images weren’t commissioned for one specific use — they’re stock photos, intended to be used by anyone who can pay the fee to license them. Designed for universal appeal, they are light on identifying details and contextual clues, anything that might risk obscuring the image’s central message, whatever it is. In a stock photo, a doctor always wears a stethoscope; a thief would probably wear a balaclava to bed.

The stock industry began to escalate in the 1980s, as more photo agencies offered a pool of pre-shot, professional photos to clients. In the early 1990s, doorstopper catalogues appeared, allowing advertisers to mail-order images on CD-ROM. But by the 2000s, the industry found itself facing a tidal wave: the internet.

Websites such as Shutterstock and iStock (then called iStockphoto) developed, where you could download individual images from vast, constantly updated databases of “microstock”, at a tiny fraction of the price the agencies were offering. As the libraries grew, they threatened the established players (Getty and the now-defunct Corbis among them), whose prices were higher and whose selections grew more slowly. Before long, microstock had completely rewritten the long-established economy of advertising images.

The movement was made up of a new generation of photographers, with new, cheaper-than-ever high-resolution cameras. These were the “Amateur Professionals”: enthusiasts who had never been interested in making a career in photography before, but were drawn to the high rewards on offer for uploading even the simplest of shots. The consummate Amateur Professional, who has built a golden empire of blonde women drinking coffee, surfing, doing yoga and getting massages, is Yuri Arcurs.

Yuri Arcurs in a large spacious workspace with people milling around behind him

Throughout the late 2000s, he was the world’s top-selling microstock producer, and his name is often appended online with “microstock legend” or “millionaire”. In 2012, Shutterstock emailed Arcurs to congratulate him on a personal milestone — $2m earnings on its website alone. It was mostly from royalty payments that were under 50 cents.

He began shooting as a psychology student in Denmark but didn’t properly process the impact his work was having until his final week of university, when he noticed that another student had purchased a stock photo for the front of her thesis. It was one of his. “At that point, it became clear to me: here’s a student who’s willing to spend 20 bucks because she needs a nice shot,” he says, speaking from his home in Cape Town. Stock images, Arcurs saw, were not just for advertisers, they were for everyone.

A great stock photo needs to connect with a “universal human experience”, says Rebecca Swift, who heads up Getty’s visual research department. But it should also fit the client’s needs. In the 1990s, advertisers wanted visually impressive shots from remote destinations, screensaver-ish sweeps of mountain snow and untouched sand to use in postal adverts (ie junk mail). “Conceptual” images were also popular: an arrow hitting bullseye or a goldfish jumping out of a bowl.

But in the 2000s, as small businesses making websites began to buy their own photos, images no longer had to be awe-inspiring — they just had to work to a non-professional eye. Not only were the photographers amateurs, but so were the people purchasing images.

Yuri Arcurs was building an empire. Soon he could hardly walk down the street without seeing one of his images. In 2010, readers of the photography trade magazine PDN voted him one of the most influential photographers of the decade. Not everyone in the industry was pleased with his approach.

The “Professional Professionals”, whose fees had suddenly been gutted, were furious. “You, sir, are a whore,” read one email to Arcurs, sent from a pro who said he’d photographed two presidents in the White House. “You could make a good living,” he continued, “but you choose to destroy something beautiful.” Arcurs was unperturbed.

On a sunny day in 2019, I joined Berlin-based photographer Luis Alvarez in a greenhouse where he was shooting a photogenic, but fake, three-generation family pretending to garden. They smiled as they offered fruit up to the camera; smiled as they pretended to trowel dirt; smiled as they posed together, thumbs up, one big, happy, believable family. “They always complain about all the smiling,” Alvarez says, eye still pressed to the lens.

Alvarez carefully monitors what’s already available on stock websites and is always looking for ways to combine trending topics to get a return on his investment. This shoot, for example, depicted not only “sustainability” and “gardening” but family bonding, technology and ageing — extra “targets” that advertisers might be looking for.

Some trends are less predictable and are only captured by researchers such as Swift through analysing the swathes of images browsed and purchased. One trend noted by Getty for 2019, and recommended to contributors including Alvarez, was simply the colour yellow — at the shoot, he pointed out wellies and a T-shirt in lemon and buttercup shades. At the moment, close-ups of hands are doing particularly well, along with a recent shift to warm colour palettes and lighting.

When Alvarez had finished his shoot, the global marketplace sprang into action. A selection of the best images was sent to his retoucher in Poland, then uploaded to Getty Images. Next, they went to a business in India which tagged them with keywords. Once submitted for approval, “Grandson and grandmother potting plant together” would be purchased as many times as needed, perhaps by an advertising company putting together a brochure for a bank or by a self-published author for the front of an ebook about gardening.

Photographers receive a cut from each sale — on Getty’s sites, between 15 per cent and 45 per cent depending on a contributor’s upload rate, file type and exclusivity (libraries will pay more to be the only ones to sell a shot).

After a few months, Alvarez reported back: the shoot had flopped. In the end, the best-selling image was one he had included simply by chance: a handwashing shot, uploaded in February 2020.

The coronavirus has changed the fake world portrayed on stock photo websites as much as it has the real one. “Everything I’ve done for the last seven months has been corona-related,” Alvarez said, when I spoke to him in the summer of 2020. In March, he got hold of a single, used mask (then a rarity), which he shot for the whole month. “The market was dying for corona-type images,” he said, noting the appetite for images of home-schooling, empty supermarket shelves and home baking.

The pandemic has also changed the economics for someone like Alvarez. Usually, his images have a shelf life of 18 months or so, after which the inevitable shift of styles and customer interests decays their desirability. But in 2020, images stopped selling after one or two months. “The supermarket pictures sold in April and they sold in May, and then haven’t sold any more,” Alvarez explains.

The conversation has moved on, and his livelihood with it. “I just shoot stuff that looks like corona, because that’s the only thing you can do right now,” he says. “But that market is going to disappear eventually, so all those images are going to also die out.”

Stock photography works by aiming at universal experiences, but “universal” is of course a charged concept. A stock photo has to cater to the norms dictated by advertisers, especially those from the US and Europe. These assumptions are multiplied by algorithms and made visible by search engines, as anyone who has searched for “doctor” and seen page after page of white men can attest. In the real world, people of colour are the majority globally. Yet on stock photo websites, they certainly aren’t.

As norms have adapted, however, so has stock. Getty, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock have all worked with photographers to improve the diversity of their collections. Stock artists themselves told me they were focused on shooting against stereotypes when it comes to portraying women, people of colour, people with disabilities and older people.

With a more progressive worldview came a shift towards rawer, more honest photography, modernising away from “that microstock look”, says Swift. “2012 was when we saw the big shift,” she says. She remembers advertisers calling up Getty and iStock, the microstock library it had purchased a few years earlier, and requesting “the Instagram look”. They wanted shots that looked analogue: grainy, awash with pastel colour. “It was that highly filtered, allegedly authentic, documentary style of photography,” Swift says. The natural style (minus the filter effect) is still popular, and highly Photoshopped images are out.

What hasn’t changed is the singularity of message. As Arcurs put it: “You need to portray an image without any interruptions — no UFOs, that’s unidentified frame objects,” he explains. “No unanswered questions.”

In the world of stock photos, there has always been rancour among the thumbnails. The top sales rankings on stock photo websites, common in the 2000s, had to be taken down so that photographers wouldn’t know which images were making other people money; sneaky stock producers would simply copy an innovative idea or even re-upload the same image under their own name.

Today, however, the grumbling is most often directed at the stock photo platforms. “In the last 10 years, the prices have just dropped through the floor,” says author and industry expert Jim Pickerell. “If you’re not selling at volume, you’re not going to make enough to make up for the low price.”

As the margins drop, he says, the market is left to those who can afford to shoot at threadbare prices. Western photographers have begun to peel off, and some of the largest outfits are now in places where overhead costs of studios and models are cheaper. “Thailand is probably one of the biggest producers,” Pickerell says. “And there are certainly a lot of people in eastern Europe.”

Among the largest producers on Shutterstock, with more than 1.3 million images, is Africa Studio, founded in 2008 by Olga Yastremska but based, confusingly, in Ukraine. “Renting even in Ukraine is a significant part of the budget,” says Yastremska. “A similar office in the USA or England — I can’t even imagine.”

Selling stock photos can be like gambling: you’re never quite sure which photos will flop and which will resonate, and why. In 2012, the Polish stock photographer Piotr Ambroziak uploaded a picture of a man in the driving seat of a car offering the viewer a beer bottle. By mistake, though, he edited the photo to depict the driver parked in the middle of oncoming traffic, turning the shot into a surreal, hilarious nightmare. There are endless listicles online of the “worst”, “funniest” or “weirdest” stock photos, and this one has landed a permanent spot.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” he says. It didn’t even stop the photo from selling. It wasn’t a bestseller, but people bought it. For Ambroziak, that’s what counts — not how people feel about it. I have asked stock photographers again and again whether they are bothered by their photos being purchased for use in immoral or derogatory ways (headshots are popular with scammers who use them to create fake identities, for example). Again and again, the answer is no.

Stock photos often live longest in memes. Perhaps the most iconic stock photo models are featured in the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme, a shot by Antonio Guillem, which shows a man staring at another woman while out with his girlfriend, who looks shocked in response. Guillem, however, has shot thousands of images with those same models, in all sorts of poses. One of these photos even ended up representing a happy young couple on a billboard for a Hungarian government campaign promoting “family values” (to the mirth of its opponents).

But it’s easy to see how it happened: even though the models are internet-famous, their faces are simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible, illustrating everything from financial advice columns to orthotics websites.

But there is a new wave of disruption around the corner: the “Exposure Professionals”, bloggers and early-career photographers who offer their images not just cheap but free. They are mostly based in the US or western Europe and aren’t interested in the ruthless efficiency and speed-uploading it takes to make a profit on the paying websites. Exposure Professionals are likely to call themselves “artists”, a word that is treated with derision by people such as Arcurs. The primary skills of a stock photographer have “nothing to do with art”, he says. “You have to be a workaholic.”

Yet for many consumers, the photos on Unsplash and other free-download websites look indistinguishable from the paid-for kind. You’ve probably seen plenty today as you’ve wandered around the internet: a skateboarder in sunglasses doing a trick, a palm tree on a white beach against a cloud-free sky. Earlier this year, Getty Images purchased Unsplash, proving that these Exposure Professionals are here to stay.

In other words, the disruption that enabled western amateurs in the early 2000s is itself being disrupted: first, by photographers in places where they can survive off the lower prices and, second, by those who are happy not to be paid. The threat of dropping prices, as many see it, is existential. As Yuri Arcurs told me, “If microstock can’t survive, then what can?”

Rodrigo Ribeiro is probably the world’s most downloaded stock photo model. He made his name with Arcurs, who has sold his face almost a million times, but he’s worked for a variety of photographers in and out of stock.

“I can look American, I can look Brazilian, I can look European,” he says. “I just look normal.” Yes, he’s attractive, but his success comes not from being a modern Adonis, but from appearing “regular”: a youngish white guy of medium build with a brown dollop of hair. “My friends call me the famous anonymous guy,” he says proudly.

Since interviewing him, I’ve seen his face approximately once a week. These shots, probably taken in South Africa or Brazil, have travelled thousands of miles to meet me on the East Coast of the US. Each time, my eye refocuses as if I’m looking at a Magic Eye picture, turning his face from “relaxed businessman” or “cool barista” back into a real person.

Global markets have different criteria for “normality” or “authenticity”. Greg Aslangul works for the agency Arabian Eye, which sells authentic images of life in the Gulf that hope to correct images of the region. People upload images to stock websites “and claim that they’re of Arab people,” he says, “when they’re not.”

With a dearth of models that look “typical” to Middle Eastern audiences, a single model on a stock photo website can have an outsize impact. A case in point: Arabian Eye’s relatively small portfolio on Shutterstock includes one model whose 200 photos have been exorbitantly popular. He has advertised a huge list of evermore unlikely businesses, including the Saudi passport authority, two different orphanage charities, an online gambling site, ready meals, a charity promoting family stability, a talent competition, a water corporation, travel insurance, an online stationery store and at least seven different business courses.

Aslangul, on a micro-level, has made a similar gambit to Getty, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock, all of which eagerly shared their plans to make their collections more diverse, more representative and more authentic. Their PR teams have endless initiatives to encourage this style of photography, and it’s the goal of most of the producers I interviewed to make their photos seem natural and connect them to the real world.

When I first met Alvarez, the photographer in Berlin, he told me a story. He was shooting a series of healthcare images in a real-life pharmacy. During the shoot, the model pretending to be a pharmacist was giving his “customers” sympathetic pats on the shoulder, a gesture Alvarez says makes pharmacy images sell better.

But the owner of the store, watching from behind the scenes, was bewildered. He tried to correct Alvarez, telling him, “We never touch our customers.” Alvarez just smiled: “I told him, ‘Don’t worry — the stock world is not the real world. It’s the world we want to be in.’”

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