An excerpt from Courtney Milan‘s website to continue reading ‘Can we talk about black women in stock photos?‘  click here

Trigger warning for racism.

17cb270851698d4456de89ba461d0a95I’ve talked before about how I make covers for my books.

The basic idea is this: (1) I go on stock photo websites, (2) find pictures of women in wedding dresses, and (3) modify the dresses in photo editing software. Voila, a cover.

The most time-consuming step in this process is (2)–finding a photo that will make a good underlying cover. It’s not easy. You need someone who doesn’t have a silly expression on her face, whose pose is interesting and makes the viewer wonder about her. She should match the description of the heroine in the book. If I’m doing a series, the pose needs to match what I’m doing for the other books in the series. Since these are wedding-oriented, I have to discard a good portion of them because the women are wearing or holding things that are incompatible with a book cover photo–things like veils or massive bouquets. I have to look through about 500 or 600 photos for every usable picture I find.

Luckily, there are tons of pictures of women in wedding dresses on stock photo sites. These are very often pictures that are designed for women to look at, because everyone wants to sell a bride something. The dresses are beautiful. The lighting is often just a little ethereal, which is great for a historical romance cover. And the photos are all taken with a certain view in mind: to send women the message that they are beautiful, that they deserve to look pretty and deserve to be happy. (We can talk about the bridal industry and beauty standards and all that jazz…but not today.)

Even with that said, it probably takes me 2 or 3 hours to find a good photo. This is something I do at night, when I’m too tired to do more taxing work. It’s relaxing to just thumb through photos.

Or it was until I started looking for photos of black women.

There are 107,151 pictures tagged “bride” on for all ethnicities. (If you don’t add “all ethnicities” on there, you get substantially more photos–but I’m not going for exact statistics here, just a hand-wavy feel of things.)

You can also search by ethnicity (assuming the photos are properly categorized in the system).

Here’s the breakdown (and, no I didn’t make up these ethnicities, so let’s not try to parse this too much):

  • African: 57
  • African American: 444
  • Black: 222
  • Brazilian: 2
  • Chinese: 1,783
  • Caucasian: 77,536
  • East Asian: 2,704
  • Hispanic (Latin): 1,572
  • Japanese: 1,592
  • Middle Eastern: 1,235
  • Native American: 41
  • Pacific Islander: 102
  • South Asian: 1,614
  • Southeast Asian: 2,077
  • Other: 3,484 (Not scientific, but at a first guess, many of the brides in the “other” category appear to be white.)

Of course, there is some overlap between these categories. Some photos show up in both the “African American” and the “Black” ethnicity tag. And as you might imagine, some photos are tagged as all possible asian ethnicities. But you can see what I’m driving at. 107,151 photos of brides on shutterstock, and less than 723 of them are of black women. That’s 0.6% of all the available photos, and that percentage looks even worse when you remember that shutterstock is a global site, and many of the contributors are not from the US.

That disproportion is troubling.

But let’s talk about the kind of photos you can find on shutterstock.



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Courtney Milan writes historical romances, which might lead people to think that she could be cool. In reality, she’s about four different kinds of geeky. At present, this blog is where Courtney applies semi-dormant geek skills to publishing.


4 thoughts on “Can we talk about black women in stock photos?

  1. I’m looking for a Native American woman for my next cover, so you can imagine the issues that I am having! I’m not looking for ceremonial dress or fake head-dresses, and no smiles, so the available stock narrows considerably!

    Right now I’m doing a little poking around to see if there is a photography database that focuses on ethnicities…


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