Seeing is believing

Images have an immediate effect, they grab our attention easily, are universally understandable and we encounter them everywhere, day in day out. Images shape events and our understandings of them and influence our realties in the way they depict people, situations, and things.

How we perceive reality depends heavily on the images we see every day. This holds particularly true of how we see minorities. Images tend to construct realities rather than depicting them objectively. How images are used clearly reflect relationships of power and dominance in society.

In contrast to a written account— which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership—a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all.
Susan Sontag, Essay Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)

The power of images

It’s virtually impossible to escape the power of images. They help our brains categorize the world around us. We believe what we see. This is precisely why images that portray racist and other discriminatory stereotypes are so powerful - and so dangerous.

Stereotypical imagery can negate a text - even if it is critical of those very stereotypes. Articles are often just skimmed over, read superficially, it’s the images that stick in our brains. The emotional and unconscious power that images have is correspondingly great.

Racist Images

The power of images could be seen in reports on COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic. Many reports resorted to stereotypical and cliché-laden images of Asian-looking people to illustrate their features. Not infrequently, they created unobjective and inappropriate text-image combinations that triggered certain associations and stirred up anti-Asian resentment.

Korientation e.V. have regularly criticized anti-Asian racism in reporting on the pandemic and have collected a number of negative examples on its website.

Photos are symbols, are clichés

In reporting, social minorities and marginalized groups are often (visually) reduced to certain clichés and stereotypes. Admittedly, there has been some improvement in the choice of images in journalism in recent years. Where the subject of migration and integration is concerned, pictures show more diversity. Pictures of black-clothed, veiled woman weighed down with plastic bags from Aldi and three clamouring children as the standard picture to illustrate a piece on integration are becoming a thing of the past.

But most pictures still show women wearing headscarves, even though more than two-thirds of German Muslims do not cover their hair and not even a quarter of all immigrants come from Islamic countries.

Hier die Bertelsmann-Studie rein, siehe alter Guide, Tipps & Tools, Seite 64

Sexist stereotypes

Stereotype and stigmatising portrayals are still commonplace even of women who do not belong to a recognisable minority.

90 per cent of sports coverage is still about men. If a female athlete does get mentioned, so does her appearance. Only male athletes enjoy the privilege of being judged solely on performance and not on body shape.

A lot of media reporting during the Covid pandemic also portrayed sexist stereotypes. During the pandemic, many people worked from home. Reports on remote workers usually featured women juggling office work, home schooling and childcare. Often, these women were portrayed as unkempt and overburdened. Men were hardly portrayed in such contexts. Instead, they were shown relaxing on the sofa after work. Single fathers weighed down by the same double burden were nowhere to be seen.

Photographers position themselves directly in front of the pit during long jump events, waiting for the legs to spread during the jump and then they press the shutter. They hardly ever do this with men.
Track and field athlete Rebekka Haase in Übermedien

Show Reality

Likewise, the topic of disability is almost always symbolized by pictures of wheelchairs - even if this has nothing to do with the reality of most disabled people.

And the images used to illustrate reporting on LGBTIQ+ issues mostly depict white homosexual men, often shot from behind, walking hand in hand. How terribly monotonous. 

Such clichéd depictions also mean that other characteristics such as age, expertise, professions, or hobbies of the people portrayed in the pictures remain unseen. Precisely because images play such a fundamental role in media reporting, it is important that they depict the diversity in our society as accurately as possible. After all, the job of good journalism is to show the realities of society.

Just ten years ago, our top-selling image of women showed a half-naked lady on a bed. In contrast, today's top-selling images feature women leading business meetings, working in technology and science, or playing sports. Of course, we still have a very long way to go. But we have made it our goal to show realistic images of people.
Rebecca Swift, Getty-Images, in WirtschaftsWoche

Cliché-free illustrations

This means minorities should not be shown only in problematic contexts - which often hardly affect many of them - but also in everyday, normal contexts and situations. As a mother with a disability in an article about raising children, as a Muslim expert for French cuisine in the Wine & Dine section, or as a homosexual couple in the article that talks about tax relief for married couples. That’s showing diversity.

The images favoured by the media, on the other hand, are frequently shaped by clichés, stereotypes and the presumed viewing habits of the recipients. Very rarely are people actually asked how they would like to be portrayed. Most picture editors fall back on sock images, and these are full of one-dimensional images. It’s time for new symbolic images.

A checklist to reduce prejudice

With the help of practitioners, experts and representatives of affected groups we, the Neue deutsche Medienmacher*innen, have compiled a list with the most important questions photographers and picture editors need to ask in order to reflect on their own work and to find new, better images.

For photo editing departments

Are the images discriminatory?
When it comes to minorities and topics such as migration, people with disabilities, LGBTIQ*   common mistakes can be avoided: For example, don't use photos that show back views of women wearing hijabs to illustrate “migration”. Don’t use models without a disability to create pictures of people with a disability. Don’t just use pictures of events such as a Christopher Street Day parade to illustrate a story on gay rights.

Does the picture have symbolic value? 
Images that reproduce clichés and stereotypes and thus serve to reinforce prejudices should be avoided.

Is diversity represented?
Diverse images can be used to illustrate general topics such as stories about business, employment, education, family or insurance schemes. Same gender families, people from different ethnicities or with disabilities all serve equally well.

Does a person belong to one group only?
Show multiple affiliations: The woman in a hijab can be a mechanical engineer and a single mother, the man in a wheelchair can be a lawyer and a transgender* person.

Know the context of the picture
When using stock and agency material, the context of images and keywords should always be checked before use, since using the image in another context could be problematic.

When should diversity features be shown, when not?
Images should represent rather than stigmatize. The diversity in our society should be portrayed as it actually is. However, if a picture showing a woman in a hijab, for example stands for a whole group (e.g., all Muslims in Germany), that choice of picture is more likely to reproduce prejudice rather than to depict diversity.


For Photographers

Do you need to question photos and motifs?
When illustrating topics about minorities, always check for clichés (including your own) and feel free to challenge the viewing habits of those who are going to see your work.

Did you take the protagonists seriously?
They are the experts on the realities of their lives. They should decide how they want to be portrayed in which situation. They should have a say in the choice of motif.

How can disadvantaged groups be fairly represented?
It is much better to show your model in an active role or in an interaction, instead of portraying them in a passive (victim) role.

Have you cleared all rights with the models/ protagonists?
The right on how images will be used should be discussed in advance and appropriate consent obtained. If you intend to use the photos you have created elsewhere in the future, it’s advisable to explicitly request and receive the consent of your models by listing all the other possible uses beforehand.

Things to consider when selling to image databases
Keywords should be as precise as possible. This makes it easier to find the images and use them in appropriate contexts to depict a diverse society. Sometimes, however, for photos to be found, they must be tagged with very general keywords such as "foreigner".


Flyer and Poster

The poster is also available for editorial offices by mail. Order it free of charge from info​


Good Practice: Diverse Image Databases

  • If you’re looking for authentic images that try to avoid reproducing clichés try Gesellschaftsbilder a photo database for editors, media professionals and anyone else who in search of good images. The models and photographers who work for Gesellschaftsbilder work in close cooperation. This intensive interaction distinguishes their results from other photo databases. Gesellschaftsbilder see their models as experts who can decide on questions of representation and authenticity. The photos on this page are from a workshop on non-discriminatory photo reporting organised by the Neue deutsche Medienmacher*innen in cooperation with Leidmedien and the Lesbian and Gay Association (LSVD). 
  • According to Getty Images, their Lean In Collection contains over 10,000 cliché-free images of confident and successful women and girls.
  • The non-profit initiative Women Photograph aims to make women and non-binary people more visible. Their database includes the works of over 1,000 independent photographers from over 100 countries.
  • Vice Magazine’s Gender Spectrum Collection offers non-stereotypical stock photos of trans* and non-binary models. The photos are licensed under a Creative Commons licence, which means they can be used for non-commercial purposes if the images are not altered.