How we depict women is set to change

Rebecca Swift: director, creative insights, Getty Images
Rebecca Swift: director, creative insights, Getty Images

Getty Images' Rebecca Swift is optimistic about how women will continue to be depicted in imagery.

The "visual representation of women" is a discourse that has been ever-present during my adult years.

Critics have been typically anti-advertising, calling for a revolution of the entire industry but allowing no position for those of us who love the industry while trying to make a difference.

The photography industry has been through monumental changes in the past 15 years. The early digital years were a time of experimentation and, coincidentally, also a time when serious businesses were developing websites for the first time.

As global communication then became possible for all business, an easy to read, generic style of imagery developed. This was most noticeable in images of people. "Globally relevant" men and women became the norm, creating a growth of images of shiny happy people with generic aspirational lifestyles (a style of image that the stock industry is still criticised for).

But as digital communication has become more common and personalised through social media, visual language has also changed. User generated content is not just competing with professional photography, the UGC style has influenced professional photography too. The personal, intimate, realistic, relaxed point of view has infiltrated campaigns across most industries.

This development is most overt when analysing the depiction of women in imagery. Personally, I am optimistic about the future in this regard.

Women dominate the conversation on social media and it is on platforms such as Instagram that women are increasing their power. In 2016 more women than men were on Instagram.

Social media also offers a platform to express frustration about media and ads that don’t resonate, or rely on old stereotypes. The phenomenon of hashtag activism, for example, allows for an age of inclusivity to speak out.

The people, the target audience and the customer are all pretty clear in their demand for a more diverse approach to visualising women and demonstrate exactly that in their daily behaviour creating and interacting with images.

The ad industry has been addressing the issue – it is now widely acknowledged that there are not enough women in powerful positions in an industry responsible for speaking to all audiences.

We too, in photography, are aware that in certain segments of the industry, the balance of image creators is heavily in favour of male photographers.

This has caused our industry to question its hiring practices and is something we at Getty Images are closely examining. We are aware that in sport, for example, there are not enough female photographers.

We are doing our bit to redress this balance with the launch of the Getty Images Female Sports Photographer internship in partnership with the Women’s Sport Trust. It is the first of its kind and, while not going to change the industry overnight, is a step in the direction of encouraging more diversity behind and in front of the camera.

Through this programme we hope to influence more female photography students to stay in the industry, an ambition also discussed in relation to female photojournalists in a recent New York Times article

But what about the content? Are we seeing an evolution as we all start working towards bringing more women into the production process? We are seeing it with big brands as the narrative about women changes – for example Always, Bodyform, Sport England, Adidas, Microsoft and Nike.

These campaigns are fabulous and give much hope for the future of visual communication – they cause a big bang and receive well-deserved media attention, used endlessly as examples thereafter of what advertising to women should look like.

In the end though, real change will come from everyday behaviour. All of us who create and select images for a commercial purpose or to illustrate an editorial piece have a responsibility to change the visual language through our daily choices, choosing representational imagery over imagery that does nothing more than fill a space on a page.

Featuring female doctors as frequently as male doctors, representing male nursery teachers, creating content that is about collaboration between men and women, showing images of male caregivers or female business leaders... the list is endless (and equally as applicable to age, ethnicity and disability). 

The future is bright for the visual representation of women. As more brands make informed image choices, as more examples of ad campaigns successfully representing women get media coverage and more women make high-level decisions about all of the above, younger men and women won’t think twice about making image choices which reflect an updated, realistic and aspirational view of women today. 

Rebecca Swift is director, creative insights, at Getty Images.

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