clock menu more-arrow no yes

Confessions of a stock photography model

You don't know me, but chances are you've seen me. I did some things I'm not proud of for money. I was desperate.

I was a stock photography model.

I began stock photography modeling (or "modeling," if you want to get fancy) when I was in my mid-20s. I didn't do it often — maybe once a year or so, if and when a job fell into my lap. To date I've probably been a part of 10 to 20 stock photo shoots.

It was never a passion; I never had illusions about becoming a model or walking down a runway. I was an actor, and I did it for a buck when I desperately needed a buck fifty. I would shoot, collect my money, and be on my way. Most of the time those photos never saw the light of day. This all happened many years ago. But time, just like a well-placed stock photo, makes fools of us all.

Here are four lessons I learned as a stock photography model.

1) You have zero control over your own narrative

Professional models know what they're signing up for when they go to a shoot. They know the product. They know when the images will appear and where they'll appear.

In the world of stock photography modeling, you never know when something is going to surface or what it will surface for. You can go years in ignorant bliss before the past comes back to haunt you.

When it does, you can suddenly be the face of something you've never heard of or an embarrassing product you would never use, like a newspaper.

Most of the time these things are innocuous. But when you sign up to model for stock photography, you never know where your face will land, which means people can make assumptions about you that are often untrue. When you do stock, you can be anything. I've even had my image animated.

2) You'll be recognized for random things

As a comedian, I've been reading the Onion since high school. It's my favorite publication anywhere. I've even appeared on their short-lived Comedy Central show SportsDome. Gracing their pages is an honor, which is why I was floored and excited when this ol' stock photo hit the site:

Do I want to be the face of gentrification? Not particularly. Am I cool with being the butt of a joke? Totally.

Fun things like this can happen, but they're the exception, not the rule. When you do stock photography, anyone can control your narrative. Getting to punctuate a joke is amazing, but that fun can easily be offset by becoming the face of other things, like when a columnist needs a picture to highlight his deeply personal yet on-trend topic:

Perhaps it's the newspaper I'm reading, or the scarf, or the smile, but someone at HuffPo saw it and said, That's our bisexual! Bing — I'm now fielding questions from everyone I know for a month, because nobody these days reads past the byline.

It's a great article; it's just not mine. When you sign a modeling release, you're literally saying you can represent anything. You're a human emoji.

3) It's incredibly easy to get screwed

I did one shoot for what's known as "in-house promotion" for a company, which is a fancy way of saying that it would only be used within the company or to attract advertisers. I was even personally assured on set that nothing shot would be mass-distributed. My modeling release stated that the company in question owned the rights to those photos because, hey, they legally have to in order to use those pictures for anything. That's true of any modeling.

One month later I found my face plastered on newspaper ads, flyers, and, yes, even billboards. Personal assurances mean jack when you've signed a release. The company in question owned those images. It was theirs to do with as they pleased. And it pleased them to lie to me in order to promote their brand.

The whole experience could have been amazing; my face was easily recognizable and everywhere. Typically that type of exposure usually nets you quite the paycheck. On the low end, I should have easily gotten several thousand dollars for that type of modeling. That wasn't the case in this instance because...

4) It's just not worth the money

Sadly, as that shoot was supposedly for "in-house promotion," I was paid less than an average Bernie Sanders contribution. And there was nothing I could do. I brought it up to my agent and was met with a resounding ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Stock photography models are paid for their studio time, not their exposure. A quick few hundred bucks can be great if your photo winds up in a PennySaver, but if your photo gets wide exposure a company can make bank from you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

You're all but guaranteed to be depicted in a stereotypical fashion. For a straight white man like myself, that means I'm often a doctor or the lost boyfriend. When I'm placed in an interracial couple my partner is suspiciously always Asian, because the people who buy stock photos can't fathom a white dude dating a black or Latin woman (it's still the 1950s in stock photos).

It's not something to do for anything other than kicks, since those photos can really complicate things for you professionally. For instance: If your face winds up on a box of Colgate, you can say goodbye to any chances at a Crest commercial. That's just the business.

Unfortunately, some pictures of mine are still floating out there, and it's just a matter of time before something else drops. I just hope I'm not the next face of HPV — it could really conflict with that doctor picture.

Andrew Kimler has written on a number of projects, including the PBS pilot The Think Tank and the IAF webseries I Love You, You're Wrong. He currently has two pilots in development with the American Sports Network, and his videos have been featured on Glamour, Fast Company, and Comedy Cake.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Explainers

What will the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races mean for Biden?

TV

Succession turns a box of doughnuts into a stealthy statement about abuse

Culture

What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.