Free stock art lacks diversity: Where are all the brown people?


Free stock photography sites like Pexels and Pixabay.com are the truth. Thanks to them, creatives and writers can add dope photos taken by real photographers to their content. And this is without asking for permission. 

Just type in a couple of words and voila. Scrolls worth of quality images to compliment whatever narrative a content creator has got going.

But for the "stay woke" crowd, the voila isn't quite so magical. Don’t think you’re going to find a ‘yasss’ photo that will perfectly fit into your story on #blackgirlmagic or a shot of a young interracial couple to use as a lead image atop your story about millennial dating. 

Search something as specific “African American” and get a photo of a guy with his mouth open resembling Reuben Studdard or the overused picture of that cute black girl smiling, every time. No brown hands holding a cup of coffee, no groups of friends of all flavors chillin’ at brunch — and definitely no professionals of color. Never mind a ‘results not found’ message when you search keywords like “black.” You just get the wrong stuff. 

Think that tweet is a lie? Go ahead. You try searching one of these sites for "black wedding." Anything preceded by "black" calls up black and white photography, most often of white people. Actual photos of black people are few and far between. 

And don’t you think about searching for a photo for your blog post on natural hair. Girl, bye. Do it and find tanned blondes with beachy waves in their tresses. 

>> Related: Michelle Obama rocks natural hair in viral photo

Sure, that’s natural too. But after the entire #teamnatural movement, how could these sites and their search algorithms not know what users are referring to?

WHERE ARE ALL THE BLACK PEOPLE? And yes, the all caps are for the yelling kind of emphasis. 

Well, Unsplash.com, a hub for free high-resolution photos submitted by photographers from around the globe, told us that “black” is a search term that they use for photos featuring the color black. Not black people. 

Studies have shown that black is not the preferred term among white Americans. Instead, many prefer “African American.”

So maybe Unsplash should get a pass...? 

Christina Mestre, a West Palm photographer attributes the lack of diversity to a sheer lack of knowledge: “A lot of these stock photos sites don't have a pulse on our community or culture. So they probably wouldn't portray it well any way. It leaves the work to some awesome photographers who are involved.”

>>Related: This great article from NPR’s Code Switch, “Light and Dark: The racial biases that remain in photography”

Something else to consider is that free stock photography doesn't pay the bills, baby. Photographers, like other artists, need to make a living — even if their career is also their passion. 

Roosevelt Williams III, a Port St. Lucie photographer, isn’t interested in a Pexels or Pixabay right now. He says there isn't enough guarantee that submitted photos will garnish enough attention to make the craft profitable. He’s just not convinced it’s worth his time. 

Maybe not. But, Mitchel Lensink, a photographer who contributes his work to Unsplash.com, wrote in a blog that for him, the more exposure the better. He noticed an increase in his acclaim when Unsplash added several of his photos to their curated collections that reach a wider audience than any one photographer’s profile. They also posted his work on their social media profiles, reaching thousands of peeps. 

Still, others, like Patrick Tomasso in Toronto landed freelance work as a result of companies discovering his photography via his Unspalsh profile.

>> Related: 'Today Show' beauty expert apologizes for messed up makeover

But whether free stock photography sites can make someone famous isn’t the question. The fact is we still tryna figure out where all the black peeps at. 

Unsplash is a bit different than Pexels and Pixabay, though. And probably the better avenue for high resolution photos of diverse communities. Why? Because every photo on the site is generously shared by photographers from around the world. The Unsplash community. 

Unsplash doesn't source the photos themselves. The content provided is decided solely by the amateur or pro photographers who throw their photos up there for free. And sure, Unpslash filters what’s allowed to be on the site, but they ain’t discriminating. 

“Good quality photos [are] always accepted, regardless of ethnicity,” said Annie, Head Curator at Unsplash. 

That’s clear by the photos in William Stitt’s Unsplash profile. Stitt is a college student in Miami who mostly shoots people of color because, as his bio says, “Black is beautiful.”

We couldn’t get in touch with Pexels or Pixabay, but Unsplash shared that their development team is currently working on improving the site’s search feature. We think that means black hands and arms in an office when you want ‘em. 


Searching for free, diverse images online alone could take you 40 to 45 minutes — at least. Typing and retyping supposed keywords to find those black kids smiling. It can be overwhelming. Leaving you in an exhausted mental space. Settling for a photo you were considering but didn’t love. Save yourself the time and start with these tips.

Keywords to search:

  • Diversity
  • African American
  • Urban (Don’t shoot the messenger. SMH.)

Pages to bookmark:

  • CreateHER Stock — A digital space for stock imagery curated specifically for female bloggers, creatives and online influencers of color. Free gallery available. 
  • WOCINTECH — Free stock photos of women of color in tech.
  • Colorstock — Simply priced, royalty-free images for brands, marketers, and content creators. Images cost $20 or can be retired for $250 so no one can use it but you.
  • MochaStock — A stock imagery marketplace launched specifically to provide editorial-ready, diverse imagery and video.  
  • African American Men — A collection by Terry Carter Jr. on Unsplash.com.
  • African American Ladies — A collection by Terry Carter Jr. on Unsplash.com.
  • Nappy — Beautiful high res photos of black and brown people. For free. 

Communities to join:

  • The Unsplash Community — Check out the collections of photos curated by people who join the Unsplash community or create your own so someone else can access it. 

Photographers and creators to watch:


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