A- A A+

Stock images strengthen chronic fatigue stigma

Evan Young |  13 July 2017


Royalty-free images can be an editor's best friend. They're easy to access. They're cheap, sometimes free. Once legally obtained, they're ready to use over and over again.

Silhouette in mistPunch in a keyword or two, hit enter, and voila: pages upon pages of glossy, if not diverse, images ready to splay across whatever domain you desire. You know the kind: businessmen leaning in to shake hands, a woman jogging at sunset, perfectly manicured kitchens and lounge rooms.

One of the more peculiar elements of royalty-free images, as pointed out by Megan Garber of The Atlantic in 2012, 'is the manner in which, as a genre, they've developed a unifying editorial sensibility'. Discernible readers know when they're seeing a stock image. Their generic, cheesy sensibilities have become hackneyed; so much so they can undercut the authority of accompanying prose.

One only has to look at meme culture to see how their stock has declined (sorry, couldn't resist). This is one reason why we need to be careful with royalty-free photos. If used without much thought, they can misrepresent and trivialise serious issues. Trust me, I know.

I have the awful displeasure of living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) — a hugely misunderstood and devastating condition. CFS is an umbrella term simplifying a host of smaller conditions. They adversely affect the body's systems; severely cutting one's ability to think, sleep, concentrate, work, exercise, filter toxins and fight infection. Most patients cannot leave their beds or homes.

Funding, research and awareness are non-existent. Contrary to layman belief, CFS is not psychosomatic and has very little to do with sleep. Patients like me contend every day with not only crushing symptoms, but constant suspicion regarding their legitimacy. Because of its invisibility CFS often appears as an act. Though the real act is holding it all together; upholding any semblance of normality, just to be.

When I see a rare article on CFS, it is almost always suffocated underneath a stock photo of somebody yawning or with head in hands. The influence may seem subtle, but the ripples turn into tidal waves further down the line. These kinds of images contribute to society's misapprehension CFS is exclusively related to sleep, making it even tougher for patients to live in a world already hard enough to live in.

It gets even more difficult for us as sufferers to find the support we need. If there's barely any media coverage, and every time something CFS-related runs it includes pictures of handsome men rubbing their eyes — or, god forbid, Britney Spears circa 1990s — the stigma intensifies. Certain audiences may be more likely to click on a link if there's something fun in it, but believe me, there is nothing fun about having your personal integrity attacked by those closest to you, or being laughed at when you visit the doctor.


"We're no longer using general or outdated language when writing about these topics, so why continue to use these generic pictures?"


This does not only go for CFS, but every misunderstood or stigmatised topic. Too frequently we see generic royalty-free photography beside articles looking at mental illnesses, and issues related to domestic violence and bullying. Search for a piece on any of the above, and see what photos come up.

We're no longer using general or outdated language when writing about these topics, so why continue to use these generic pictures? Rarely, if ever, does all-purpose photography encapsulate the complexities or nuanced politics of an issue. Too often is a choice of header image lax; an afterthought, completely and utterly secondary to the prose it accompanies. As imagery begins to govern clicks on news sites and social media feeds, why shouldn't we pay closer attention to it? A header image is usually the first thing people see when visiting a webpage, and it quickly establishes the tone of the piece to come. No one issue is the same. Homogenising disparate ideas makes little sense, not least when it can be potentially damaging.

It can be time consuming to source proper images, yes, but it is our responsibility in the media — particularly those at influential outlets — to ensure conversations push forward, not backward. Next time your impulse tells you to tack on a royalty-free photo before publication, stop and ask whether it might be the best move. If not, get creative: think outside the box, use symbolism, source an illustration. The cost of choosing the wrong image can be larger than we may think.


Evan YoungEvan Young is a writer and multimedia journalist living in Melbourne. He sporadically tweets from @thebevaneffect.


Evan Young


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Never thought of this issue. Thanks from a fellow CFS sufferer 20+ years.

Cindy Peterson 15 July 2017

Well said. My partner has had CFS for at least 23 years and reactions commonly range from polite disbelief to nasty comments about being on drugs.

Robyn Williams 20 July 2017

Interesting article about images and what they project. Going through the benefit process here is very difficult. I imagine if I smiled during one of my assessments, that would be interpreted as me being 'ok'. Not sure we can win on this one!

Angel 25 July 2017

Thanks for this article...As one who has had quite severe CFS for 24 years I am grateful to any one (and you of course,Evan) who helps to bring the reality of living with CFS to public attention...

Clare Corcoran 11 August 2017

Similar articles

Why having a female Dr Who matters

Neve Mahoney | 27 July 2017

xxxxxIt was recently announced that the thirteenth iteration of the main character in Doctor Who will be played by Jodie Whittaker. A woman. In 2017, the casting of a white woman in a major TV role is hardly revolutionary, except that the role is the Doctor, a regenerative alien who can take on the appearance of anyone, but has for 12 iterations tended towards the persona of a quirky British white man.

Encryption and liberties on the 'ungovernable' internet

Binoy Kampmark | 14 July 2017

WhatsApp and Facebook iconsTurnbull's attitude echoes the fear all autocracies have: that control is slipping away, and that citizens cannot be trusted to behave in a modern communications environment without government intrusions. Arguments are repeatedly made that such enlarged powers are never abused - a charmingly naive assumption - and that law enforcement authorities merely need the 'capacity' to have them. These can either abate, or be extended, after a review. The reality tends to be different.

Balance vs fairness in giving airtime to conspiracy theorists

Francine Crimmins | 19 June 2017

Alex JonesThe NBC has pushed ahead with its plans to air Megyn Kelly's interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones despite criticism from friends and family whose loved ones were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, which Jones claims was 'staged by actors' and 'never happened'. This contentious interview has sparked a conversation about which forums should allow dissenting viewpoints and whether dangerous ideas should be given public airtime in a news context.

Shielding kids from Grenfell Tower televised trauma

Barry Gittins | 16 June 2017

Grenfell Tower aflameAn article focusing on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings reported that people 'exposed to more than six hours of daily media coverage of the tragedy were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress than those directly affected by the event'. News junkies, or those who saw extended coverage, were found to be worse off than those who actually survived the bombings. This is sobering as we consider how we deal with our children's exposure to traumatic events playing out on TV news.

ABC devalues religion reporting at its peril

Rohan Salmond | 01 June 2017

ABC logoReports that the ABC will no longer require the head of the religion unit to be a religion specialist are more than a little surprising. The ABC has a commitment in its charter to 'reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community'. Without religion reporting from people with specialist journalistic backgrounds, the ABC jeopardises its ability to fulfil its ongoing functions and responsibilities. Like it or not, religion still plays a huge part in public life in Australia, which affects the lives of everyone.