Acquaintances message me on Facebook when in a bank or a physician’s office they stumble across an image of me. Two months ago my godmother sent me a picture of myself with a husband and two daughters hanging in the Long Island Walmart she frequents.
When I enlarged the picture on my phone it took me a moment to recognize myself. I never remembered the children or the man I appear so happy with. I only have vague memories of the job itself. For something that seemed practical during my broke graduate school days, over time my former life as a stock model has morphed into existential-crisis-fuel besides being an exquisite example of how I served myself up to be exploited.
This is how the business works. Studios hire models for a day to be photographed in a range of scenarios. I went out mostly for young mom and professional types. The low-end jobs paid 500 bucks, the higher end ones two to three thousand. The only stipulation I remember from any of the release forms I signed was that the images were banned from use in HIV or STD pharmaceutical ads. I agreed to flat fees, entitling the companies I worked with to sell repeatedly, over years, the hundreds of photos they snapped of me without being informed, let alone seeing a residual dime.
Brands with an image to cultivate and protect choose their faces from a crop of top models to be captured by handpicked photographers. Clients in the market for stock photos, on the other hand, select from a ready-made pool of professional pictures and leave it at that.
About two years ago, I discovered that I had been featured in a laxative print ad splashed across Midwestern Sunday Savers.
Glamorous, I know. Because of my life-long commitment to regularity (the result of being raised by old people), I found being the face of a Dulcolax coupon deeply amusing. However, when my godmother forwarded me the picture in Walmart with my fake daughters I didn’t feel amused, used or even cheated. I felt envy. Envy for a non-existent version of myself. One that’s younger, happy and with children.
The image of me in Walmart, content and confident, with my fake husband and my fake daughters taunts the restless woman who struggles with depression and self-esteem, whom I actually am. That’s part of what gets under my skin about the stock photos. My image is used to sell values that alienate me and a lot of other women.
At the same time that stock photos are universal fodder, they are almost without exception aspirational filler. Mainly because they attempt to dictate to us what we should buy while showing us how to live. Unlike fashion photography, which presents an unattainable fantasy of ever-fleeting seasonal trends, stock photos are nearly timeless representations of trends that never go out of style: happiness, normalcy, stability, parenthood.
If I didn’t actively yearn for all of the above, the stock photo where my own happiness was packaged as motherhood wouldn’t have dug into me so deeply. That woman in the photo (who is me) has something I don’t. Well, what of hers (mine) do I truly want? Even if I could answer that with absolute certainty, what’s the guarantee that what we want is actually best for us? Even then, what’s best for us might not actually make us happy.
What complicates this philosophical conundrum is that so many of us digest our lives through photography in real time. (I have over 1,600 photos on my Instagram feed). Our grandparents might have walked down Nostalgia Lane looking at photo albums years after the vacation or the birthday party. Since we can make our pictures instantly public through social media we live in an era of selfie-gratification.
In contrast, my stock photos are “otheries.” Besides not taking these images, they are from an alternate reality I have trouble recognizing. And I have yet to arrive at the place where they don’t alienate me from my emotionally struggling, childless self.