Stock photos, plucked from infinite thumbnail galleries, are meant to be representations of our everyday lives. Their quiet ubiquity shapes our understanding of the world. At its best, stock photography is generic and universal, but specific enough that anyone can see themselves in a staged shot of a group of people working around a laptop, a smiling couple holding a baby, a jogger on an early morning run, or even a couple in a fight. But they default to assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ — that is, stock — racial, gender, and cultural identities. For people who aren’t white, cisgender, or from a European culture, generic representations aren’t so easy to find, both for a creator using these images and for a consumer or audience absorbing them.
Companies and photographers have made some attempts over the years to add more diverse offerings to the catalogues of popular stock photography websites, including Getty and Shutterstock. But the collections remain overwhelmingly white, culturally limited, and aesthetically stale. Established stock photo companies’ inabilities to branch out is evident in the overwhelming depictions of sameness in stock-photo-reliant editorial and advertising.
Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi are trying to change all of that with a new company, TONL. Okonkwo, a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur, and Kissi, a New York-based photographer, creative director, and co-founder of a creative agency, began the subscription-based company last summer with the intent to change popular narratives surrounding people from underrepresented backgrounds. Set to launch in August, the thousands of photos already in TONL’s pool not only showcase cultural, social, and racial diversity, they also take aesthetics to heart, replacing the cold anonymity of stock photography with consideration for modern aesthetics.
So far, Okonkwo and Kissi have begun establishing a base of subscribers and supporters to whom they have been incrementally introducing the website and looking for feedback. Part photo site, part online community, TONL is preparing to challenge the way stock photo websites approach their subjects, creators, and audiences and, in the process, hoping to replace harmful social stereotypes and attitudes with depictions of people that are both more varied and more pleasant to look at. The Outline spoke with Okonkwo via Skype about TONL’s origins, the company’s unique approach, and the founders’ plans to expand the scope of what stock photography depicts and what it can do.
How did you and Josh come to start working together on TONL?
Prior to all of this I was doing blogging for a site called The Sorority Secrets, which I founded with two sorority sisters. During that experience we were producing content online but it was very hard to find imagery that was diverse. We did a really good job of taking our own pictures, but even in that sense it was still hard to find people [who weren’t white]. And that was really frustrating for me, especially since I grew up always making sure that I had a diverse friendship circle. It bothered me that I wasn't reflecting that with my business.
So years go by and I connected [with] Josh because of a friend of mine, and I thought of this idea: What if he did stock photography that showcased just a more diverse crowd? I don't think it's this huge, crazy, brilliant idea. But I haven't seen it. At least, I haven't seen it done well. So I reached out to him and told him the idea. He said he had never thought of doing stock photography and that he would only pursue it if I would do it with him. At that time I was at capacity, so I said. “Okay, then we're just not going to do it.”
An audio version of this conversation was featured in our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch.
Last June, July, there were a lot of unfortunate incidents in the black community when it came to police brutality and police killings. And Josh was like, “Man, Karen, what better time to change the narrative of the black community and all these other under-represented communities than [now] to do the stock photography business?” I prayed about it and I was just like, “God, if you think it's in my best interest to pursue this, reveal that to me.” And from that point on we decided to move forward. And I really really really believe in doing a lot of research and studying your potential audience, studying people who are already out there doing something similar, and then taking pieces from those those businesses to make yours the best. And so that's what we've been doing for the past nine months. And now we're here at this point where we're starting to slowly reveal our website.
Representing so many different cultural narratives seems like such a daunting task. What's your approach to that?
I can see how it can be daunting because some people may come into this and be like, “I don't see my race or I don't see my ethnic background.” We are going to definitely do our best to showcase everyone, but it's going to take a lot of community effort for us to be able to fill any space that we don't [fill]. We're going to do a pretty damn good job of filling that.
Can you tell me a little bit about the aesthetic approach, too? Something I really like about the photos is that they don’t really look like stock photos.
We want it to look as professional yet modern and relatable as possible. And so we took our time thinking about the right contrast and brightness and saturation and things like that. We decided on a set filter for our looks. When you're dealing with people who are from different ethnic backgrounds, it's typically more darker skin or olive complexion. So we just found a filter that we felt made those stand out more. Our name TONL [(TOHN'-uhl)] is to represent different skin tones, because there's just been one particular skin tone that has been conveyed in society.
When it comes to considerations for TONL photos, what do you guys do that’s different from what other folks are doing?
It's heavily catered on our six categories: [tone, trust, travel, tradition, taste, and today]. We use that first as our template: which of these categories are we fulfilling? Then we place an emphasis on various ethnic backgrounds, from African-American to different Asian cultures to different eastern European cultures, Middle Eastern, and the list goes on. So we literally are pulling right now from our immediate circle of people that we know. And of course that will branch out and get larger. But we hold creative control and that's something that's specific to Josh. He usually has this brilliant vision in his mind.
Is Josh the only photographer?
Yeah, right now. One of the things [we found] during our research is that there were too many unmanaged photos. People just kind of threw their photos on some of these subscription-based platforms and there wasn't a cohesiveness. Our aim is to work with photographers who align with our look, our aesthetic. And so we're currently looking through our pool of [contacts] to identify a few photographers who will help us with TONL. We'll know them by name and they'll be exclusive to our team.
You guys mentioned in a recent Facebook Live session that you are going to introduce something called TONL Narratives.
Yeah, so we're going to segue into TONL Narratives. TONL Narratives will actually be the story behind the photo, the story behind the person. That person will be representing different ethnic backgrounds as an educational piece because the whole point in us wanting to share more diverse imagery is because the imagery out right now is misrepresenting cultures, or it just doesn't even exist at all, or it's just not done in a commercial, modern way. And so we will be introducing a podcast series called TONL Narratives, where you get to actually hear more behind that particular model in that image.
The [Narratives and speaking directly to your customer base] aspect is very different for a photo stock photo company, right? Why did you decide to bring in that part?
I think that it's important for people to know that this is a business. So of course it's a way for us to create a stream of income, but we don't want the overall message to ever be overshadowed that we truly want the narrative of imagery to change our mind. The best way for us to maintain that brand initiative is to do things like TONL Narratives. Beyond that, we will always make sure that our imagery is reflecting the under-represented. That in and of itself is a big mission, but we just want to be different. We want to create a loyal customer base. Things like having a place where you can educate yourself on different ethnic backgrounds, we think that those are things that add value.
What have reactions from folks been like since you announced the project?
Overwhelming happy, positive feedback. People are even telling us what they're looking for, which is awesome, because you can see a need in a community [and know when] you might be a little off. There's nothing more golden than being able to hear from your audience beforehand. So we're hearing people say things like, “Oh, please showcase moms who are pregnant, please showcase more couples, please showcase more traditional food and clothing.” We've been getting people interested in being models and photographers too, which has been great because we are creating a little pool of people that we can reach out to later.
What's your big dream for TONL?
I just want to see our pictures all over the world. I want people to start to see people for their total beauty. I want people to go out in the world and look at people for their character; the color of their skin [and] their ethnicity is just a bonus to all of that, not an indication of who they are. My big dream is to honestly change the way that people view people.