January 30, 2015 2:36 PM PT
The eight stock photos you meet in heaven
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
There are parts of being a gainfully employed editor for a tech website that I miss—dissecting new announcements, access to the latest and greatest technology, and the steady paycheck assuring me that ruin isn’t lurking right around the corner. But there are aspects to the gig I do not miss at all: PR pitches for subjects I do not cover. All-hands meetings. And picking stock photography for articles that might otherwise go art-less.
No, I do not miss the stock art at all.
Allow me to give you the five-second tour of the sausage factory we call Journalism. Today’s stylized tech sites require Big Bold Images at the top of every story because… well, someone did it that way once, so now every site’s got to follow suit. Much of the time, this art is meticulously planned—a photograph of the product you’re writing about, an image lovingly designed by your graphics team, perhaps a screenshot of your high score in Threes. But sometimes, you have a story that doesn’t lend itself to that kind of artistic accompaniment. Or you don’t have the time to work with your graphics team crafting a meticulous image, as if they even value your input on visual things since they see how you dress yourself. Or maybe running that same photo of that same iPhone you’ve run with your eight previous stories will make you more of a wreck than you already are.
That’s when you turn to the stock art. And that’s when you brace yourself for disappointment.
It is not my intention to kick dirt on the efforts of the hard-working people powering America’s stock art industry. It is extremely challenging to come up with an image generic enough to be used in a variety of stories but not so context-free that you’d be better off slapping a child’s doodle at the top of your story and calling it a day. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a stock photo depicting a computer or a mobile device or some other gadget at least give off the vibe that everyone involved in the photograph has a passing familiarity with how that piece of technology actually works. I can’t count the number of times I’ve scrolled through a repository of stock photos only to shout out something like “Nobody holds a smartphone that way” or “Nobody installing a hard drive smiles like that, not unless they either have good drugs or a worse grip on reality.”
So you develop coping strategies. Me, I devise backstories for the terrible stock photos I’ve come across and imagine what kind of stories I could possibly use these images for. It’s either that or be haunted by the rictus of a stock model grinning manically at her tablet for the remainder of my days on the planet.
These are the tales I’ve told, as I’ve wandered through the dark corners of stock art websites.
The Backstory: You hear a lot of talk about wearable tech these days, with people strapping all sorts of gadgetry to their bodies. Everyone, it seems, has some sort of wearable product to hawk, as they hope to stumble upon The Next Big Thing in technology. Well, get ready for some hard truths to be handed out by this smiling businessman. Our besuited friend has heard your talk of the dawning of the age of wearables and is responding to all you trend-chasers with a nice tall glass of In Your Face, Nerd-o. Our clever friend has exposed Big Wearable for the lie that it is by simply strapping his not-at-all slender smartphone to his wrist with copious amounts of tape. And not duct tape either, which seems like it would be more suited to the task—instead he’s gone for a wad of masking tape, which is doubtlessly his incisive take-down of the transitory nature of tech trends. While you suckers are throwing hundreds of dollars in Tim Cook’s direction for your precious Apple Watch, the last sensible man in America will be sending emails directly from his wrist with ease—assuming he remembered to tape the screen side facing upward.
Or it could be that this guy actually thinks he’s invented the next hot wearable. Frankly, it could go either way.
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The Backstory: I admit to having a vile temper. Honestly, it’s one of my worst qualities, and one that I struggle constantly to address. I like to think I’ve gotten a better handle on it as I’ve gotten older, but really, the only direction to go was up. Case in point: Once, at a previous employer, I got so enraged by a phone call—over what I can’t remember—that I slammed the receiver back down into the phone so forcefully, that I broke the phone’s speaker call functionality. I was so embarrassed by this destructive flash of temper, I never told another soul about it, and spent the remaining decade or so on the job with a semi-functioning phone.
That’s a true story, as whoever is currently using my phone at that office will tell you.
Anyhow, as sudden and frightful as my outbursts can be, I don’t recall ever screaming in inchoate rage at an inanimate object that couldn’t answer me back. Not so our friend in this picture, who we are to believe has been driven to the brink of madness by his GPS device. The constant, emotionless “Turn around” as he blows past the designated turn and misses chance after chance to steer himself back on course, the mournful way the GPS says “recalculating” as it figures how to right another one of his wrongs—all this has proved too much for our poor motorist, who has finally snapped, unleashing a string of profanities only interrupted by his occasional sobs. “Did I throw it in your face when you steered me into that dead end?” he screams. “Why didn’t you warn me about the traffic on the 237? WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME?” But the GPS never says a word, unless it’s to alert him to a nearby POI.
This is how I imagine Her ends.
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The Backstory: Boy, everyone in this photo sure seems to be delighted in whatever wholesome console game they’re playing. I bet it’s Mario Kart. I mean, who doesn’t love Mario Kart? Just thinking about it makes me smile.
Anyhow, I hope everyone here is truly enjoying themselves, because right at this moment, those two women are going to get doxxed, and the fellow on the far right is composing an epic rant about Social Justice Warriors that he’s going to post on 8Chan later tonight.
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The Backstory: OH MY GOD, LADY, HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU! TURN YOUR HEAD! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TURN YOUR HEAD! BEFORE HE WRITES DOWN THE CARD SECURITY CODE!
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The Backstory: A great pestilence had seized the land. Starting in the early 21st Century—the Before Times, the Ancients called it—mankind became gripped by the very devices they thought they held in their grasp. Staring at the screens, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, man became weak and enfeebled, almost childlike. He was no match for the machines. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the power the machines held over man grew until he became nothing more than a slave, cowering at the whim of his masters.
“We must send back a warning to the Before Times,” the wisest of the elders said. “Use our understanding of time travel to go back to then, carrying this—a giant mobile telephone—to warn Ancient Man of the monstrosity of technology. And to prove that our warning is not to be ignored, we shall have this hulking block of a phone delivered to them by someone clad in the garments of their most respected scholars, as we have seen from the few surviving pictures of the 1980s.”
“Do you really think this will work, oh Wise One?” the council asked.
“Frankly, it’s the only way I can explain this goddamn stock art,” he replied.
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The Backstory: “Oh, hello! I almost didn’t see you there! Yes, here I am, at my favorite wood-paneled cafe, enjoying a cup of coffee while I tip-tap away on my trusty laptop. Yes, it’s truly an age of miracles—all these gigahertz and megabytes and whatsits and whosits clicking and clacking insider this marvelous little machine, allowing me to remain productive just about anywhere I care to go!”
“Once I finish surfing for clown porn.”
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The Backstory: Let me break this down for you: This young lady is using a computer that looks suspiciously like one that Apple might make… while she is eating an apple. Do you see? DO YOU SEE? I imagine the photographer who came up with that concept bolted upright from his chair and held aloft his hand for a high-five that would never come, because everyone in his life had long since abandoned him. The high-five from God would be reward enough.
Anyhow, I imagine this was just part of a busy day of stock-photo shooting that included a person using a computer next to an open window to represent Windows or someone reading a book made out of faces for Facebook or a gang of sociopaths who had little respect for your privacy to represent Google.
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The Backstory: I don’t know what you enjoy in life, but I’m going to go out on a limb and posit that you don’t enjoy anything half as much as this guy enjoys hard drives. I mean look at him, sitting there in his all-white, sparsely furnished home, just drinking in the beauty of a well-made hard disk drive. None of those fancy-pants solid-state drives for him, no sir. Why, if there are no moving parts, how’s a fella supposed to trust it? Nope, for old Merv here—because his name most assuredly is Merv just as assuredly as he loves hard drives more than you’ll ever love anything—there’s no finer way to spend an afternoon than picking up hard drives and giving them a thorough going over. The ones that pass muster get the coveted Merv Thumbs Up. The ones that don’t? Merv smashes them into pieces and stuffs the barely recognizable parts into envelopes that he mails to his children, his worthless children who never visit or call or write, probably because he spent so much of their childhoods looking at hard drives instead of taking them to ballgames and such like. They’ll thank him one day, maybe when he’s gone and won’t be around to hear it, but they’ll still thank him as they receive their inheritance. Which will be a big box of hard drives.
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[Philip Michaels is the former editor of TechHive and Macworld, where for some strange reason he refused to use his speakerphone. He’s available for your writing and editing jobs and on Twitter at @PhilipMichaels.]
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