Diversifying Stock Photography Pictures in magazines have been missing groups of people. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi, co-founders of TONL, a company focused on creating more diverse stock photos.

Diversifying Stock Photography

Diversifying Stock Photography

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Pictures in magazines have been missing groups of people. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi, co-founders of TONL, a company focused on creating more diverse stock photos.


Stock photography has an image problem, according to my next guests. You know, stock photography - those generic pictures you see everywhere in print ads or online. Stock photos of people often have some common elements - big, fake smiles, unnatural poses. And here's the other thing they often have in common, a lack of real-world diversity. So my next two guests are trying to bring some new life and color to the industry. Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi have started TONL. They call it a diverse stock-photography business. Welcome to you both.


JOSHUA KISSI: Hey. How's it going?

BLOCK: Great. And, Karen, why don't you start by telling us how this idea came about?

OKONKWO: Yeah. So, you know, about a few years ago, I started a blog with my sorority sisters. And during that process, we created a lot of content to what we were writing about. And I found that, as we were looking for imagery or even creating our own, it was skewed toward one particular race. And that was, you know, of the white race. And so it really bothered me that, even when I try to find diverse imagery, I simply could not find it.

BLOCK: And is it really that hard to find diverse stock images if you're looking for a photo of somebody, you know, riding a bike or shopping or meeting with their insurance agent? Is it really that hard?

OKONKWO: It's hard in the sense that it's nonexistent. Or it's not portrayed in a modern, relatable way.

BLOCK: And what do you mean by modern, relatable way?

OKONKWO: So, basically, you see it very - I don't want to use the word cheesy or corny. It's just a very stale image - is usually what I find if I find anything at all.

BLOCK: Joshua, as the photographer, you're not seeing images that you would want to be - you would want to have taken?

KISSI: No. No (laughter). As a photographer, when I think of stock images, I think of just bad images, honestly - like, bad lighting, bad models, bad poses. It doesn't exactly look attractive for people to actually believe in the imagery. And the way social media is changed the world and the way we look at imagery - stock photography hasn't exactly evolved.

BLOCK: When you are shooting photos for your stock-photo business, Joshua, what's inspiring you? What are you looking for?

KISSI: I think I'm looking for just different types of people, just people I haven't seen in media or visual media in general. I'm just looking for people's stories. And when I'm on a train in New York City, and I see - I'm on the F train, for example - and even going from Queens to Manhattan, there's just a plethora of this diversity and beautiful people from Eastern European people to Southeast Asian to African-Americans to Africans to Hispanics. And I just see everybody's stories coming to life on this train. And I'm like, hey, this is what TONL should look like and feel like.

BLOCK: Do you include any white people in your images, or is it all...

KISSI: Absolutely.

BLOCK: ...People of color?

KISSI: No (laughter). That's the one thing we don't want people to kind of take away - is, like, this is a black and white issue. There will be white people - people of European descent - in our imagery. But it's going to be predominately showcasing people of color - just how the world actually looks like in general. So...

OKONKWO: Yeah, no. It just goes back to how we definitely want to make sure that this is not a segregated business because it's not. It's about unification. So you'll see on the website how we do a really great job of showing colorism - but definitely not in a separated way - in a very unified way.

KISSI: Exactly.

BLOCK: Joshua Kissi and Karen Okonkwo are the founders of TONL, a stock-photography business set to launch later this summer. Karen and Josh, thanks so much.

OKONKWO: Thank you.

KISSI: Thank you so much.

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