Ep 12: Debiasing pictures; Kate Rourke – Getty Images

While a picture can say more than words, it doesn’t always reflect the truth. In this podcast we speak to Kate Rourke, Asia-Pacific Head of Creative Insights for Getty Images about what Getty’s is doing to debias our view of the world. Kate also explains how we can use Getty’s resources to promote a more inclusive society, exhibiting diversity and challenging stereotypes.  

Getty Images’ resources: 


Manisha: There is a saying you may have heard, that a picture is worth a thousand words.  And it’s true.  An image can have a smile, frown, laugh or cry.  Images are powerful.  People in advertising and in journalism have known this for years, bombarding us with images to entice us into buying a product or service, or to tell a specific type of story.  Images can shape what we believe the world is and should be.  And Getty Images have been part of this story since 1995, as they seek to move the world through images, video and illustration.  Welcome to With, Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design.  My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Gadigal people here in Sydney, Australia.  My guest today is Kate Rourke, Head of Creative Insights for Getty Images Asia Pacific.  Welcome, Kate, it’s so great to have you here today.

Kate: It’s really lovely to be here, thanks Manisha.

Manisha: Look, it’s an absolute pleasure to be speaking to you, and we’ve heard a lot about the work that Getty Images has done in especially the last five or six years, starting with some of your disability suites and then moving on from there.  But can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became the Head of Creative Insights, and what that role actually entails?

Kate: My background is by no means linear, I have to say, in terms of how I got here.  So I can’t quite believe I’ve actually been with Getty now nearly getting on 16 years.

Manisha: Oh wow.

Kate: I’ve been with the business for a very, very long time.  And I think – and so that – I mean rather than go and give you my entire CV of everything else, because as I said it isn’t a linear journey, what I would say now in terms of what my role is – and it’s a fascinating role, I’ve been in this current role for nearly getting on four years now – and what we’re really looking to try and understand is really what are – so we’re looking to try and understand really where the visual communication is going to be going moving forward.  So a big part of our research is trying to understand what our customers are actually using and downloading, and then looking to try and understand what are some of the patterns that we’re seeing in that visually.

Another big part of our research is looking at really what are the words that people are searching for to try and find the images or videos or illustration that they are looking then to visualise essentially.  And then another big part of what we do with all of that is then try and contextualise all of that externally.  So we’re looking at popular culture, we’re looking at what’s happening in the news, sport, entertainment arena, and really trying to understand what are some of the conversations that are happening to contextualise all of that internal data that we have.  And then we partnered with a global research company back in 2018 to get the consumer part of it.

So we, as a business, are very much a B2B business, but we knew in order to try and understand this much more broadly – and again, in much more of a 360 view – we wanted to get what our customers’ customers – so basically all of us – are resonating with and reacting to when it comes to visuals.  So we do a lot of image testing, and then we carry out a number of surveys throughout the years to really just understand where consumers are at:  what is important to them, what is almost in some ways going to make the decisions that they’re going to make, but testing it through a visual lens, so visually what will make that difference?

Manisha: So that’s really interesting because you’re not only looking at what the companies think will work – or the organisations think will work – but you’re actually also looking at how consumers are, I guess, consuming that information and how those consumers are perceiving that information – whether it’s being perceived positively or negatively.

Kate: Exactly.  And then another – and so that really, all of that research informs two areas for us.  So on the one hand we’ve got our contributors that all of that research is shared with.  And again, we get a lot of trying to work and getting all of those shoots created against that.  But then what we’ve found, and again it’s interesting, Manisha, is that in the last sort of five years we’ve certainly seen an increase more and more from brands that they’re looking to try and really improve more what their visual communications are, and so we’re working a lot more close with brands, partner with a lot more with brands in that way because of all the research that we’ve been doing.

Manisha: And there’s a lot more work happening around diversity.  So if you think about, I guess, the 16 years you’ve been with Getty as well as those last four years, what are the shifts and changes you’ve seen?

Kate: Specifically around diversity, yes?

Manisha: Yes.

Kate: Goodness.  So I’d say – I mean there’ve been many shifts.  So a lot with visual evolutions, you see them – they sort of subtly happen throughout the years, and then it’s when you do the big look back when you look back five or 10 years, then you notice how dramatic those shifts have been.  I think really some of the bigger shifts that I’ve seen is really a lot of the conversations at the moment is not just about who are the people that we’re featuring in the content that we’re featuring, but who is behind the lens – so what are the different perspectives that we’ve getting – which I think is really interesting and, again, a lot of the visual GPS.  So that’s what we call our research; it’s called visual GPS that we do.  So all of those areas I mentioned earlier in terms of that we look at is visual GPS.

Manisha: It’s interesting you bring up this notion of who’s behind the lens.  And when we think about photo libraries and – as opposed to image photo shoots – but big libraries of curated information – whether it’s video or image or illustration – how do people know the provenance of the images they’re getting and how important is it to them to understand who’s behind the camera as well as who’s in front of it?

Kate: Yes, so I think – and it’s interesting, so if we think of it – so we’ve been looking a lot around this idea of authenticity and then we also have another term that we’re calling it realness.  And they’re linked but we see them quite different.  So if I sort of take you through the layers of realness in terms of how we see it.  So you’ve got that first layer of realness where we know that – and this was happening for many years before, around people wanting to see real people.  Now it’s not to say that people that come from model agencies aren’t real people, but we wanted to see more the everyday person, I guess.  Then we’ve got this sort of second layer of realness which is where really people are wanting to see not just real people, but when we’re going to be featuring families or friends or couples we want them to be real families, we want them to be real couples, we want them to be real friendship groups.

And again, it’s sort of understanding that level of authenticity amongst them because we think there’s going to be more of a genuine interaction because it’s a real family, it’s real friends, it’s real couples.  And then there’s this third layer that we’re now talking about where it’s not just about showing real families, real couples, real people, and then the diversity obviously within that, but then it’s who is having the view of what that perspective then will look like.  And so it’s more about, I guess, people wanting to have that extra layer of authenticity going right through the entire journey.  So it – yes, I don’t know exactly how to answer it in another way, but other than that I just think people find the provenance is important, we want to see more diverse perspectives.

If we think historically, predominantly in terms of photography, white men have generally – are generally the ones that have been taking most of those pictures.  Now it’s not to say that all of – but if we start to now look at the other diverse perspective that we might get, that this is where a lot of our research is going into now is what are the different perspectives we’re going to start getting, what will it start to look like when we have that diverse perspective?

Manisha: And how do you actually encourage that diverse perspective?  I mean as an organisation that drives a lot of content, what do you do to actually, I guess, drive that third layer that you were talking about; that provenance?

Kate: So I mean I’ll give you a very concrete example.  We partnered with Dove, which is a Unilever brand, and their Girlgaze, and that is a collection that is 100 percent powered by female-identifying contributors, but equally in front of the lens is also female-identifying people.  And that has actually gone down incredibly well – it’s had a huge impact – and, as I say, has continued the conversations that have already started around this.  We’re also – so we feel it’s incredibly important that this – this area, and this one we know has had huge impact.  As I say, it’s opened up the conversation a lot more.  The other thing that we’re doing is we’re working – we’ve got a lot of grants that we are putting out in order to try and recruit a lot more contributors from different backgrounds because, again, we think it is an incredibly important story to tell.

And equally, they will have access to communities and people that perhaps we haven’t been able to have in the past.  And again, our whole mission is to move the world, so we want to be able to do that in the most authentic and diverse way as we possibly can.  We ultimately want to represent the world as we see it today.

Manisha: I noticed in some of the work you’ve done, and some of the research for instance, you have some really rich data on how people, I guess, bias – potentially unconsciously bias, towards one area or another area.  For instance, I understand that when we depict Asian people we’re more likely to have photos of people carrying phones or in work settings rather than with families.  Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Kate: So this is very much how we’re putting a lot of our focus into the research – our visual GPS research that we’re doing – which is looking at diversity and inclusion through an intersectional lens.  So we very much defined seven to eight lenses of identity.  And the reason I’m saying seven and eight is because there’s one lens of identity, which is socioeconomic status, that in some countries it’s not a visible identity as such, or it’s not defined in the same way as it is in other countries.  But what we find then is when we start to look at it through that intersectional lens – and I will come onto some of the data that we’ve found particularly for Australia – and then we then think about how are we featuring it, this is where – then you start to see, to your point, some of the stereotypes that we see.

So, for example, for Australia what we see for Asian ethnicity in particular is they’re very much more also, one, more at work than they are with family and friends, but they’re also featured much more with technology.  So we all have unconscious biases, and really the importance is to be able to identify what they are.  So we created a number of different guidelines because we knew how important it was, and actually the impact unconscious bias was having in our visual both selections, but also in what we created.  And so what we found with these guidelines is that it’s helping us as a business, but equally we found that it’s incredibly useful also for our customers to be able to check-in with those unconscious biases because it is definitely impacting what we’re selecting.

I’ve definitely sensed, through all the number of customer interviews that we’ve done, lots of brands and businesses have got diversity and inclusion at the forefront of what they are focused on, and yet we’re still seeing, for example in Australia, women are still much more likely to be depicted online shopping or just shopping in general versus men, they’re still much more likely for example to be depicted with a child on their own, so even though we do see men for example visualised with the child, they’re more likely to have the mother in the background, less about being them on their own.  So what we’re now starting to really understand is that although we might be diverse in terms of perhaps selecting a particular lens of identity, so we might have ethnic diversity is better, when we don’t look at it from an intersectional lens then thinking about the how – which is where the unconscious bias comes in – this is when we’d start to see stereotypes persist.

Manisha: And when we think about those stereotypes, I think one of the things that comes up for me over and over again is are you depicting the world the way it is, or are we depicting the way our stereotypes have us?

Kate: Yes, and I think they have a huge – it’s a great point.  And I think this is the unconscious bias that sometimes we don’t even – we’re not aware of it.  And it was interesting, number of the different collections that we’ve done is that people – it’s almost until you see it you think, “Oh goodness, that is exactly right.  I haven’t seen that at all.”  And again, it’s just that awareness that we all need to then think, “Hang on, I’m see” – because again, because it’s unconscious we see it all the time, we don’t even notice it.  And it’s until we become much more aware and we have these check-in questions that we might each have for ourselves, and then see the difference that then we go, “No, hang on, this is what we want it to be more like because this is actually a true representation of the world that I am seeing around me.”

Manisha: So in terms of the images that you have, can you tell us a little bit about the size of the collection and the types of organisations that use these images?

Kate: Wow.

Manisha: It’s kind of big, right?

Kate: So we have got millions and millions and millions of assets on our sites.  We’re focused in on certain collections in terms of where we’re trying to challenge those stereotypes, or we’ve partnered with other companies.  So if I talk about more of those rather than the broader – because we have over – about 340,000 contributors broadly.  But in terms of the main collections that we’ve got:  the Disability Collection that we’re working with 17 different disability charities, something we’ve been working on for now for a number of years.  But again, trying to change the stereotype that we see around people with disabilities (1) they’re barely visualised in media and advertising, and (2) when we do see them being depicted it tends to be more on the focus of the disability or the sort of the heroic gesture of what they’re able to do because of the disability that they have.

Whereas rather than seeing it, which is where that collection is much more about, is seeing them in their everyday life, going about their everyday life, as it would be the same way as we have the Disrupt Aging Collection which is another one that, again, we started to identify and worked with a non-profit organisation called AARP because there are lots of stereotypes around the 50-plus age group.  So how can we, again, depict this in a much more authentic way that isn’t stereotypical?  And we’re finding that they’re having huge success because they are authentic, they’re realistic, and it is relatable.  So again, it’s something that we all – we know that it’s making a difference.

Manisha: Women in sport are not as visible as other groups in sport.  Do these images that you have – these ways of disrupting the stereotype – is it helping to change the story or do we need more than that?

Kate: So all of these things work in conjunction.  I don’t think it’s one over the other, I think both kind of need to happen at the same time.  If we don’t have the visual content, people also are going to be struggling to depict it if they want to.  So it definitely – they kind of work together.  For us, we’ve been following a lot around women in sport because the editorial side of our business is really big for us and it’s something that again, as a business, we really – our whole USP is about moving the world, so we want to be doing it with visual content.  And I think what’s interesting about that, when they had a look at it in media and advertising, we also then wanted to understand so how is that being also visualised from our perspective?

So we have – globally we have a view of just under sort of a million licensing customers, it’s about 125,000 that we have.  We look at 2.5 billion searches that we get on our site.  So we have a good view in terms of what – across media and advertising, what people are using and downloading, what their appetite is to try and show more diverse stories.  When we come outside of those events, we also see a drop in what – in people using and downloading content around women in sport ourselves.  So there is a direct relation between – outside those events.  And so we saw, for example, quite dramatically the first wave of COVID, beforehand it was making up in and around 10 percent of what was being used and downloaded.  As soon as COVID hit, it dropped to less than 1 percent.

Manisha: Do you feel that having a different curated series of images helps to change what’s actually shown, or do you think it takes more than that?

Kate: I think it definitely helps, but we also need brands and businesses to want to – to push that change too.  So it’s interesting, our visual GPS research very much showed that people do want to see many more diverse stories when it comes to women in sport, so they want to see the athleticism that they have, they don’t want it to be the focus on the beauty that they might – that we see more with women in sport, they want to see those much more action shots – to put it in a very simplistic way – but they want to see the drama, they want to see the grit that we see.  And so I think it needs both.  We are very driven to want to change what that stereotype is because we know that consumers want to see it in that way.

So it’s very much really a post to brands to say, “You have the opportunity to be able to change what that narrative can look like.  We can create the content, but we equally need you to take it on board and show it out there.”  We can only do so much and then we definitely need to lean on media and advertising to be able to embrace that and take that forward, definitely.

Manisha: And more I think about Getty Images as an organisation and your understanding around this area, your passion and commitment to this area, what drove that?

Kate: So we’ve been very much focused around – and again, talking very broadly diversity inclusion for over a decade, we definitely changed our thinking internally and then back in 2014 the Lean In organisation – so the Sheryl Sandberg organisation – approached us wanting to partner with us to be able to depict a more authentic view of women in business, and that really had quite an impact externally.  And then I think all the research that we’ve been doing now – and it’s interesting you mentioned over the last five years – so I’d say over the last decade our research has also shifted in terms of how we’re approaching it, how we’re looking at it.  And so what that’s actually done is it’s almost created a wider space for more brands and businesses to want to have more of a discussion around that, understand what that visual communication looks like.

Because we were very much internal beforehand; we were very much thinking about where our content – what was the content we needed to shoot.  Whereas now we’ve become much more external with the research that we’re sharing, so that it again gives brands and businesses that power to say, “OK, this is all the data that we’ve got, this is everything that we’re sharing with you, we can now look to try and change that because we can’t certainly do it on our own.”

Manisha: And is there any data or research that has really surprised you when you’ve first seen it?

Kate: Goodness, what would I say is the most surprising data points?

Manisha: And given you’ve probably had a few, maybe the most surprising in the last two months.

Kate: So I tell you actually the one I think – and it’s interesting because it’s not something that gets spoken about a lot within diversity and inclusion.  So I’m not surprised to hear that consumers – so, for example, in Australia specifically, eight in 10 are constantly saying that they want to see much more diversity and inclusion in the visual communications they see.  So that doesn’t surprise me because it’s something that I’ve been hearing about now for a number of years.  But what I do find interesting is that when we did some research around bias and how does bias impact how we feel and how we react to imagery, what we found is that when somebody encounters bias, they are driven to want to see much more inclusion.

And then when we start to look into well those layers of identity that I mentioned – sorry, lenses of identity that I mentioned before, the one that keeps on coming up – and it’s the one that goes across all the lenses of identity and always within the top three biases that Australia encounter – it’s body diversity.  And it’s the one that we see the least amount on, when we’re talking specifically on different body types.  So, for example, we tend to see women generally are depicted as being slim in Australia, and we only start to see body diversity really the older that we become.  And interestingly, men are almost in line with women in Australia in terms of encountering body bias.

And again when we think of how are men being depicted, we tend to see them sort of toned; I like to describe it like the tennis player sort of physique in some ways.  And again, we don’t tend to see – in fact men we probably see even less body diversity than what we see for women because it’s tending to move into that – a more of a female story rather than a male story.  But again, when we’re thinking of the research that we’ve carried out, it’s across both.  And so I think that surprises me in that it’s not being spoken maybe about as much.  I think we’re certainly seeing it a lot on social media, we’re seeing lots of different movements happening globally around body diversity, but when we think around what brands and businesses are actually kind of using, I think it’s – that, to me, I suppose is the part that I’m finding the most interesting because that in itself is a whole other topic around what does body diversity also look like, because it’s very varied.

Manisha: When you speak to the companies you work with and mention some of these things, for instance body diversity or some of the different biases or differences that we’re seeing or not talking about, do you have a different response when you’re talking to people in Australia next to in other countries?

Kate: So straightaway when we talk about body diversity, what’s interesting in Australia is it tends to either be thinking about it from the larger body type to – but we don’t tend to think, when we’re thinking about body type, we don’t tend to think about height, we don’t tend to think about, for example, the thinner man.  Generally we tend to sort of – it tends to focus on the larger body type, whether it be for women or for men.  But then the more sort of subtlety around body diversity is thinking about certain skin imperfections that we might have, or in certain other countries it’s more about actually the shapeless – what they would describe themselves as a shapeless body type.  Whereas I’d say in Australia it’s much more focused on the larger body type is where the conversation tends to go when we think about body diversity.  But of course that is where it’s really much broader than that.

Manisha: So if I was in an organisation and I wanted to change the images that I was using, or that we were using as an organisation, given that there are biases at play, given that there are different things that people see as more effective or less effective in their work, what is some of the advice that you would give the person on the other side of the desk to you, so that they can actually sell a diverse suite of images to the people within their organisation?

Kate: So the data’s really clear in terms of how inclusion makes a huge difference in visual communication.  So there’ve been a number of different reports talking about diversity, and not just diversity as I’ve mentioned before in front of the lens, but equally thinking about the team’s different perspectives in terms of how we approach it.  So there’s been lots of research, and not just the research that we’ve done in terms of how that has a big impact.  It also increases trust with consumers.  I think the biggest advice I could give is around checking in with unconscious bias, so really having almost a – almost really sitting down with yourself and thinking, “What are some of these unconscious biases that I might have?”

And then, as I say, there are questions – checklist questions – that you can sort of ask yourself so that when you do go ahead and think, “Right, this is the campaign that I want to go ahead with,” or, “This is the visual selections that I’m going to go with,” you’ve checked in with that beforehand and not following the stereotype that you might have unwittingly gone with before.  But I would say the data’s there.  So the data is clear, people want to see many more varied stories, people want to see – I mean a big part of the research that we found was that people want to see not just different backgrounds, different ethnicities, they want to see true cultures and lifestyles being depicted; that’s what consumers want.  So in Australia, four in five said that that’s what they want to now see.

So this is where it’s moving much more beyond the tokenism that we would have seen beforehand about making sure we depict whether it be ethnic diversity that we were focused on, and I’m almost just picking out, whereas now it’s less about the picking out and much more wanting to see that everyday natural moment that we would see that actually depicts that true lifestyle, that true culture where the people that we’re showing are from.

Manisha: Actually that really relates to some of the research we’ve done in the past where we’ve heard that when people want to be represented, they want to see people like themselves in the photos, they want to see everyday people doing everyday things, and actually being celebrated, not for their difference but for their passions and interests.

Kate: That’s exactly right.  And it’s interesting, the collection that we did – the Show Us Collection – what was interesting with that is that not only, as I mentioned before it’s about that authenticity all the way through, so behind the lens as well as in front of the lens, but also the female identifying people in front of the lens, they chose exactly how they wanted to be depicted, what they were wearing.  And then a big shift for us as a business is that then they also selected their own key words.  So we tend to choose key words based on the descriptor, but what we wanted to do is again give visibility to brands and business but for people to say, “Look, there is more to this story than just perhaps what you’re seeing here.”

So we had, for example, key words where one woman wrote “cancer survivor”, another one, for example, wrote “badass” or “queen”.  So it was interesting in terms of how they wanted to be represented and how they identified as well, so we included all of that so that we had that extra layer added in.

Manisha: So when we think about your suite of resources and images, I understand we can access them in different ways; is that correct?

Kate: Yes, definitely.  So we work across a number of – two of our platforms that we’ve got, the gettyimages.com that obviously we’ve spoken about today, and iStockphoto.com.  So that’s another website that again all of the data and everything that I shared with you today, we work with all of that across both the platforms.  So everything that we’re sharing, we’re creating content for both.

Manisha: That’s fantastic.  So that means that people can access these images not only for large scale campaigns like the sort of the Dove style campaign that you mentioned, but also if they’re looking for images for a PowerPoint presentation or …

Kate: Absolutely.  And any small business in that regard could absolutely go onto iStock and they’ll be able to find the same type of content that I’m sharing with you today in what we’re working on, a lot of our research is underpinned by it all, is also available on iStock.

Manisha: Last question.  From a personal perspective, if there was one thing you could change to make the world more inclusive, what would it be and why?

Kate: So I think the biggest thing for me is really thinking about being really thoughtful of how are we picturing people.  Are we missing anybody out?  Are we really being inclusive of everybody?  So, for me, it’s not just about thinking, “Who are we featuring in the visuals?”  But it really comes down to the how, “How are we doing that?”  So as I mentioned before about women and men, we’re still seeing some of those stereotypes continue.  And I think it’s just, again, that unconscious bias that keeps on playing a big factor into that.  So I would say really be thoughtful about how are we doing it.  So when we’re featuring the people that we’re featuring in our visuals or creating that content, be really mindful of how we’re doing that so that we aren’t continuing stereotypes that are no longer resonating with consumers.

Manisha: Thank you so much, Kate, it’s been wonderful having you here today.  And thank you so much for your time and sharing your stories.

Kate: Well it’s been really lovely being with you as well, thanks Manisha.

Manisha: And I’d like to thank you all for listening to us today and for being with us on With, Not For.  If you’d like to learn more about how you can make the world more inclusive, including using some of those checklists that Kate mentioned, we will have them in the show notes, or contact us on www.cfid.org.au.  And, until next time, this is Manisha Amin from the Centre for Inclusive Design.