IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Modeled for Stock Photos, and It's So Weird Seeing Them Used to Sell Stuff

I got an excited message from a friend who lives in another city: “Why are you on the cover of a Buddhist magazine?”
Publish date:
January 19, 2015
modeling, magazines, photography, ads, Stock Photography

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that a friend of hers was looking for models to shoot for the stock photography company he worked for; a couple hundred bucks a day, “diversity” welcome.

I was teaching part-time but otherwise had a really flexible schedule, and I believe in a “say yes to everything” philosophy, so I offered my services. It sounded like a good time, and it was!

A few things you need to know about me: I am not quite 5'2", almost middle-aged, and usually in desperate need of a haircut. I’ve been told that I’m pretty, but I’m not willowy-thin.

The first shoot in 2013 was meant to portray a creative start-up sort of workplace, and it took place in a former warehouse that, in reality, does house creative, start-up sort of offices. After I checked in and signed the pertinent release forms, I was sent to get natural-looking makeup and a bit of work on my hair. Then, the wardrobe person picked out a couple outfits for me: business casual, but just edgy enough.

A few other models and I were directed to do things like pretend to be collaborating on a project, look at our smartphones, sprawl on sofas with laptops, have quiet discussions, point to things — you know, office stuff. One scenario had me as “the boss” and point at things while my underlings watched awestruck at my business acumen.

The other shoot took place at a wood shop, where, under normal conditions, they make gorgeously rustic furniture. My own gingham flannel shirt and jeans would do, so after a quick touch-up, off we went to pretend we knew what the fuck we’re doing in a wood shop. Joining me were the actual guy who makes the furniture (handsome thirtysomething with a beard), an older gentleman, and a really, really pretty actual model. Holy Hannah, did he look good in overalls.

There was a lot of “Hold this, pretend you’re using this tool.” I got to pretend to use a chisel, a plane, and a bandsaw. We pretended to be moving a giant log. There is no way we, in real life, could come close to lifting that thing — artistic license. It was fun!

Then I forgot about it.

A few months later, I got an excited message from a friend who lives in another city.

“Why are you on the cover of a Buddhist magazine?”

Uh, okay?

It turns out that SGI Quarterly, a Buddhist magazine, had licensed one of those woodworking photos: Mari with a plane! See how she makes that wood smoother, or flatter, whatever a plane should do!

And IT. IS SO. WEIRD. I mean, of course, I expected those photos would be used somewhere, but that idea was pretty much in the abstract until now. I googled the organization that publishes the magazine and was relieved to learn that they don’t do anything terrible.

The next time I saw myself gave me more complicated feelings. I saw on my own Twitter feed an ad for some kind of business . . . women? Networking something? It’s me, looking creatively businesslike, with the caption: “Wife, sister, mother, friend — and business woman. Join other business women on LinkedIn who can help you.”

Ohh. Although I can maybe see myself studying Buddhism, I have some issue with this ad's message. It’s the implication that:

  • Women only exist in relation to other people!
  • Women can have it ALL!
  • The only thing that stands in the way of you and success is networking!

I’m exaggerating a bit, but the distance between the woman in the ad and me was jarring. It’s weird being portrayed as a “wife, sister, mother, friend.” I have so many complicated feelings about the “having it all” narrative. I’m divorced and I forgot to have kids. (Whoops!) I also don’t know the first thing about using LinkedIn, other than that it’s boring and nothing happens there for me.

I’m completely responsible for this, having signed the release forms, and I’m trying to wrap my head around these portrayals of someone who might be me, but isn’t.

Still, I wonder. How many of the other pictures are out there? How is my image being represented? Does it matter? How upset am I, really?

Kind of not very, as it turns out. This past spring, they asked me to do another office shoot, and I did it. Despite feeling powerless over the control of all of these rogue Maris out there, there's something liberating about losing a feeling of image as identity.