Picturing the Everyday in Black Stories

Trends / Realness
Val Wilmer
Reya Sehgal
Apr 12, 2022
Recent debates over how history is taught in the US have surfaced widespread conversations about what is canonized in our nation’s history, but according to our most recent Visual GPS data, learning about Black history—with a particular focus on the unsung stories—is a priority for most Americans. 79% of Americans believe it’s important to provide exposure to the stories in Black history that haven’t been widely taught, and 77% agree in the importance of news, media, and entertainment continuing to feature stories about Black history. Further, 33% of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) Americans believe there is still not enough representation of Black stories, including Black history.

The use of visuals in popular media perpetuates biases about the people and events that are deemed worthy of remembering, transmitting, and celebrating. Glaring discrepancies in how Black people are represented in media across time show up in the most popular Getty Images content. While Black people are seen in 1/3 of popular contemporary commercial visuals, photographs, etchings, and ephemera related to Black history make up less than 1% of popular archival visuals.

Getty Images customer searches for figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (+73%), Harriet Tubman (+59%), Frederick Douglass (+94%), Jackie Robinson (+62%), and Shirley Chisholm (+114%) point to a desire to highlight long‑celebrated heroes in the fight for civil rights and cultural and political inclusion. Nearly 20% of popular archival images focused on Black history feature Martin Luther King Jr., and more than 20% are focused on sports, music, or entertainment, highlighting significant figures from Muhammad Ali to Nina Simone to the late Sidney Poitier.
Often, iconic images of historical figures or moments are seen as metonyms for the entirety of Black history. Think about Rosa Parks’ mugshot, Dr. King delivering his iconic speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or Huey P. Newton sitting for a portrait in his peacock chair.1 While commemorating these heroes sheds meaningful light on their contributions, and the lives they lived, there is more to Black history and culture than famous figures, or even the events of the 1960s, though 1/3 of popular Black history visuals date to this decade. This overreliance on key historical figures, often shown in portraits and rarely in contextually‑rich settings, provides little visibility into the realities of Black life. Further archival inquiry allows deeper, more nuanced stories to be told, showing influential people living full lives, and the networks of people who we may not know by name but who lived, and by living impacted the world around them.

The Picturing Black History project
To better present a more inclusive vision of Black life in the US (and abroad), Getty Images has undertaken a number of initiatives in the archival space. We are refocusing our ongoing digitization program to uncover new content related to Black history from the analogue files; collaborating with new photographers and new collections; sustaining an archival grant program for HBCUs; and partnering with Ohio State University to launch Picturing Black History—a project that uses archival imagery to anchor an expanded understanding of Black history, highlighting the stories that are less frequently told and the visuals that are less frequently seen. Essays created for the Picturing Black History project have spotlighted the effects of racial segregation in sites like beaches or school buses, the connective tissues between civil rights and labor movements in the US and abroad, and anonymous Black soldiers in the Civil War. One particularly emotive essay uses a photograph of four unknown Black girls joyously cooling off on a hot Chicago day, noting how revolutionary it is to see an everyday document of this kind. In this way, Picturing Black History offers a corrective to the narrow visions of Black life that are offered in popular media and historical narratives.
Historically, what is deemed worthy of saving usually results in the under‑documentation of people with little financial or political power. For this ongoing archival project, “we are committed to re‑editing and curating for Black history, rediscovering content, and unearthing sidelined figures and whitewashed narratives that may have been languishing or overlooked in our analogue files for decades,” says Bob Ahern, Director of Archive Photography at Getty Images. Curated archival collections focused on Black history through the lens of daily life elevate reality and humanity, rather than relying on a “heroes and holidays” approach to storytelling. Brands looking to showcase Black stories can use such archival and creative imagery together to tell expansive stories of everyday Black life.

Building the Archives of Tomorrow
Over the past two centuries, photography and visual media writ large have perpetuated significant symbolic violence to the humanity of Black people, which has led to a lack of depth in visual storytelling about Black people that continues today. Where early imagery accentuated the differences between Black and white people, today’s visuals may elevate the idea of shared humanity; however, nearly half of popular contemporary images featuring Black people show them in multiracial groups, 99% of which include white subjects. Few popular visuals showcase the cultural diversity within Black communities, and colorism persists, with Black overwhelmingly pictured as light‑skinned.

But the tides are clearly shifting. Since 2015, creative visuals featuring Black people have grown by nearly 30%, speaking to a rise in visual storytelling about Black people—Visual GPS shows that 47% of Americans are now more seeing Black stories in popular media than they had in 2020. We have seen a corresponding rise in searches for Black people in everyday situations (as patients, on college campuses, spending time outdoors) as well as in celebratory imagery: customer searches for “Black joy” rose by nearly 300%.
Key to the Getty Images ethos is changing perceptions through imagery, helping us combat bias and discrimination, and creating thoughtful, humanizing visuals across creative, editorial, and archival imagery.
Advertising has a long history of perpetuating visual stereotypes about Black people, and advertisers today are increasingly aware of the need to reverse this trend.3 Through creative collections, partnerships, and new content development, Getty Images is actively combating visual stereotyping of Black communities, and adding to our library of creative content that depicts Black people across ages, gender identities, professions, and family structures in everyday settings. Our Visual GPS research found that 69% of Americans think that there are too many negative stories about Black people featured in the media, and celebratory creative imagery can help fill in some representational gaps. After all, the content of today will be held in the archives of the future, and we’re committed to filling our archives—and our media—with more positive representations of Black people.

Works Cited
[1] Huey P. Newton (National Archives)
[2] We Can’t Just Teach About Heroes and Holidays and Call It Culturally Responsive (Education Post)
[3] African Americans and Advertising (Race & Ethnicity in Advertising); Multiculturalism in the Marketplace (Advertising & Society Review)
Decoding Bias