Can we talk about black women in stock photos?

Trigger warning for racism.

I’ve talked before about how I make covers for my books.

The basic idea is this: (1) I go on stock photo websites, (2) find pictures of women in wedding dresses, and (3) modify the dresses in photo editing software. Voila, a cover.

The most time-consuming step in this process is (2)–finding a photo that will make a good underlying cover. It’s not easy. You need someone who doesn’t have a silly expression on her face, whose pose is interesting and makes the viewer wonder about her. She should match the description of the heroine in the book. If I’m doing a series, the pose needs to match what I’m doing for the other books in the series. Since these are wedding-oriented, I have to discard a good portion of them because the women are wearing or holding things that are incompatible with a book cover photo–things like veils or massive bouquets. I have to look through about 500 or 600 photos for every usable picture I find.

Luckily, there are tons of pictures of women in wedding dresses on stock photo sites. These are very often pictures that are designed for women to look at, because everyone wants to sell a bride something. The dresses are beautiful. The lighting is often just a little ethereal, which is great for a historical romance cover. And the photos are all taken with a certain view in mind: to send women the message that they are beautiful, that they deserve to look pretty and deserve to be happy. (We can talk about the bridal industry and beauty standards and all that jazz…but not today.)

Even with that said, it probably takes me 2 or 3 hours to find a good photo. This is something I do at night, when I’m too tired to do more taxing work. It’s relaxing to just thumb through photos.

Or it was until I started looking for photos of black women.

There are 107,151 pictures tagged “bride” on for all ethnicities. (If you don’t add “all ethnicities” on there, you get substantially more photos–but I’m not going for exact statistics here, just a hand-wavy feel of things.)

You can also search by ethnicity (assuming the photos are properly categorized in the system).

Here’s the breakdown (and, no I didn’t make up these ethnicities, so let’s not try to parse this too much):

  • African: 57
  • African American: 444
  • Black: 222
  • Brazilian: 2
  • Chinese: 1,783
  • Caucasian: 77,536
  • East Asian: 2,704
  • Hispanic (Latin): 1,572
  • Japanese: 1,592
  • Middle Eastern: 1,235
  • Native American: 41
  • Pacific Islander: 102
  • South Asian: 1,614
  • Southeast Asian: 2,077
  • Other: 3,484 (Not scientific, but at a first guess, many of the brides in the “other” category appear to be white.)

Of course, there is some overlap between these categories. Some photos show up in both the “African American” and the “Black” ethnicity tag. And as you might imagine, some photos are tagged as all possible asian ethnicities. But you can see what I’m driving at. 107,151 photos of brides on shutterstock, and less than 723 of them are of black women. That’s 0.6% of all the available photos, and that percentage looks even worse when you remember that shutterstock is a global site, and many of the contributors are not from the US.

That disproportion is troubling.

But let’s talk about the kind of photos you can find on shutterstock.

Some of the photos are absolutely lovely.

shutterstock_100026020 (1)

Attribution: Deborah Kolb,

Like this. (I used a picture of the same model, different pose, on the cover for Talk Sweetly to Me.)

So don’t get me wrong–there are adorable pictures up there, and yay for that! But there are a lot fewer pictures over all than you’d expect from population proportions. And while 0.6% of the photos of brides are black, the pictures of black brides are disproportionately less likely to be ethereal pictures of beautiful women.

There are more photos like this, where you can’t actually see faces.



attribution: John Warner,

Those are relatively innocuous.

There are also more photos that look like this:


Attribution: |

Don’t get me wrong. She’s beautiful. But she is also wearing substantially less clothing than your average woman who walks down the aisle. This is not a photo that is designed to make a woman think about the joy of looking beautiful on the special day when she gets married to the man of her dreams; this is a photo that’s designed to attract the male gaze.

And then there are photos of black women wearing wedding dresses that have no counterpart in all the 77,000+ photos for white women. I’m talking about this:



Attribution: Rob Byron |

I do not have enough NO in the world for this. Fuck this shit.

Even if that last image did not exist (and it does), it doesn’t change the fact that there are disproportionately fewer pictures of black women in wedding dresses, and a smaller percentage of that tiny number intend to send the message that black women deserve to look beautiful and be happy.

And that’s horse shit, plain and simple.


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38 Responses to “Can we talk about black women in stock photos?”

  1. Imagine if you’re an actual woman of color looking for stock photos of women of color for your wish box where you hope to pretend it might be a book cover. Thanks for expressing the outrage that many of us can appreciate and agree is ridiculous.

  2. Pamela, you’re completely right. And I want to say it’s not just “women of color.” I’m hapa. Some people think I’m white. Some people think I’m Asian. Lots of people ask me, “WHAT ARE YOU?” But I have always seen media representation of people who look something vaguely like me being beautiful and happy.

    I knew, intellectually, how pervasive anti-blackness was. But spending hours and hours and hours actively looking for something, and scarcely finding anything? This drove it home for me. I can only imagine what it’s like to spend a lifetime looking.

  3. Teresa says:

    Hammer meet nail. I stopped looking for art sites to meet my needs a long time ago; it’s pointless. Perhaps someone who reads this could consider starting their own diverse stockphoto site. Obviously there is a need. If I were a halfway decent photographer… with money, I would start one myself. It can’t be too hard: read up on rights-management, network with photographers working in the genre (not that people of color are a genre, I mean wedding photographers, portrait photographers, etc.), hire a lawyer to consult with on copyright issues, and put yourself out there. I’m sure I’m simplifying it far too much, but someone should give it a go! :-)

  4. It’s equally dismal for women over 50. I have spent hours trying to find shots of “mature” women for my work website.

  5. You’re so right Courtney–it’s not just women of color, there are plenty of us “other” who are woefully underrepresented in what’s considered beautiful and not put into exotic positions in media. Oh, the naysayers will throw up celebrities like Beyonce, Zoe Saldana and Lupita N’Yongo but they are the exception and not the rule. Which again, is bullshit because there are plenty of regular beautiful women walking down the street, shopping at the grocery store, etc. Some might say that things are inching very slowly towards a more homogenous society, but it’s still infinitesimal. Sarah McCarry aka The Rejectionist, talks about the lack of diversity in publishing here:

    We can only hope that things get better. Teresa’s idea is a great one.

  6. It’s so strange what you see when you focus on what isn’t there, rather than what is. This was post was very well written. I did wonder how many book covers you need for a black heroine versus, say, a Caucasian one. I only say this to point out that diversity is something that the literary world can work toward too (me included!).
    Thanks for sharing this. :)

  7. I will absolutely raise my hand and plead guilty as charged on the writing diversity front.

    My next series will (I hope) move in that direction. It’s about 50/50 between protagonists who are white and those who are POC, and the representation on the covers (I only show the female leads for a number of reasons) will reflect that as well.

  8. Ann says:

    Are you familiar with medievalpoc on Tumblr? She has a wonderful selection of from all over the world over thousands of years, to get people t LOOK at what is out there. She’s on twitter too.

    “People of Color in European Art History: Because you wouldn’t want to be historically inaccurate.”

  9. I love medievalpoc. Love.

  10. @Courtney Milan: Cool! Good luck with that. :)

  11. Holley Trent says:

    Yep. It’s problematic. I do a lot of kvetching about under-representation in stock–mostly in private conversations, though when I’m in a bad enough mood I’ll the really ridiculous images I find on Facebook. I write contemporaries and contemporary paranormals, and at this point, I expect that my friends who write POC lead characters will have covers with the same models in the same poses. It’s become a bit of a joke. When we do collaborative projects and we’re sorting through stock, most of the feedback is, “Nope, I’ve already used her.”

  12. Hi Courtney,

    Thanks for the buzz on this topic. It’s well needed. I’ve just said to “no” to stock photos and begun having original photo sessions for my book covers. It’s been the most empowering experience ever. In fact, I would encourage black woman authors to do this. The issue is not going away any time soon. Hopefully, more photographers will get a clue and load stock but I can’t afford to wait for them. BTW, the 1-hour shoot is not as expensive as you would think and there are lots more photos to be had for the price point.

  13. Lia Silver says:

    I recently went through an astounding number of stock photos trying to find a suitable cover model for the second book in a series. (“Werewolf Marines,” so I was trying to find hot men who looked like they could conceivably be in the military.) The hero of the first was white. No problem, even if I did have to choose between “hot” and “has a military haircut.”

    The hero of the second book is Filipino. I went through multiple stock photo sites, including some based in Asia, multiple times before I finally found ONE model who worked. You can find handsome Asian male models on stock photo sites. But unlike handsome white male models, they’re very rarely posed in a romantic or sexy manner. It’s really hard to find any intended as objects of desire – which is not the case with white models. Very similar to the issue with black brides, I think.

    That’s not even getting into the number of people who have informed me that my book will fail if I put an Asian man on the cover. I guess we’ll see…

  14. @Alicia McCalla: Another workaround might be digitally illustrated covers. I commissioned one (non-PoC couple, though) for one of my titles and thought it was fairly affordable, all things considered (obviously price will depend on the artist and perception of affordability will depend on the author’s/publisher’s budget).

    I was also lucky enough to get a *second* illustrated cover on my latest release and SilkWords didn’t hesitate to feature my interracial couple on the cover (technically, the image that accompanies the story given that SW offers interactive stories). Of course, that kind of creative freedom probably exists because they decided to pursue a water-color type cover style.

    Clearly, more PoC stock images are needed, but in the meantime a quality, digitally illustrated cover as well as custom photo shoots could help address the imbalance, at least a little bit.

  15. Ann says:

    Ooh, look at this new post on NPR’s Code Switch, about the biases in the mechanics of photography.

  16. Thank you, Courtney! As a web designer I’ve spent countless hours looking for stock images of people of color over the years. It’s always disheartening. I approached an indie author last year about whitewashing her cover (the character on the cover was a POC but very, very light-skinned whereas the character was described as dark-skinned). The author said she couldn’t find a stock photo of a dark-skinned person of the right age and with the proper expression on their face. I understand the problem very well, but tried to explain to her why what she’d done was problematic given the skin shade issues prevalent in various non-white cultures…

    Another thing people don’t want to talk about is whether having a black woman on the cover will hurt sales. I’ve talked about this with some other black female writers – as indie authors especially – with our suspicions that the majority of romance readers (non-black) will not pick up a book with a black woman on the cover, should we do it anyway and take the risk just to see ourselves on the cover? I’m leaning towards taking the risk. I, for one, saw the cover of TALK SWEETLY TO ME and told about 5 people about it. That’s how excited I am to see people who look like me represented.

  17. I found myself nodding along to this post. Thank you for sharing the issue! I write gay romance, so brides are less of an issue, but it can still be difficult to find an amazing look for a cover that needs a non-white protagonist on it.

    I must admit, shameful as it sounds when I think about it, that I will HESITATE to write a non-white character sometimes, because I know it’ll be very difficult to find cover images to accurately portray them.

    I’ve written two stories with POC main characters, and they all happened because I fell in love with a suitable image FIRST.

    I wrote about the one here:
    It’s young adult, which I don’t normally write, but I ended up falling in love with these guys, and my readers liked them a lot, too.

    My other POC-featuring story is a paranormal romance, “Fireproof” [] Both characters are POC, and although I don’t mention it much in the story, it was still important to me. I had the cover commissioned for this one, but I licensed the image myself, and actually had it picked out before I wrote the first word. I knew what Levi looked like, although I doubt I’ll ever get to show an image for Jett, because he’s Native Alaskan/mixed. I love my boys, and Jett is very special to me, but it makes me sad to know that if I write more about him and Levi, I’ll probably never be able to show him on the cover. Unless I can find an illustrator I can afford, perhaps?

    Anyway, it’s hard sometimes to find images that are OK to use for gay romance. But interracial or POC as well as gay can be even harder. I feel very lucky to have found these images. I hope I can find more in future.

    The truth is, it’s EASIER to write “only white guys” and it’s EASIER to only show covers with them. But these are some of my favorite characters, and I think it’s worth writing about people with various heritages.

    Anyway, thanks for posting about this. It IS an issue for many of us self-pub writers. But in gay romance at least, I know there’s an audience for non-white characters because a lot of my readers LOVED these stories. I don’t think it has to be an “issue,” either, just that’s part of who they are and they’re not ashamed of themselves or how they look.

  18. Anne Victory says:

    Wow. Thanks for writing this, Courtney. Absolutely ridiculous, and yet not something I’d really thought about. It’s good to shine a light on stuff like this, though Sharing.

  19. M. Malone says:

    Oh where oh where is Melissa Blue right now? She needs to see this post. As Holley mentioned, there have been many conversations bemoaning the lack of multicultural stock art on Facebook and laughing (crying) over the fact that the images that ARE available are sometimes not of professional quality (i.e. the people are obviously NOT models and look like random people grabbed from the street).

    And now I’m seriously wishing I’d saved some of the awful ones Melissa posted one day just so you all can share our pain :)

    I’ve gotten so used to having a migraine whenever I search for cover art because it always requires a full day of scrolling through all of the stock art sites just to find one usable image.

  20. I write multicultural romances and have run into this difficulty. Sometimes I have to settle on a brunette cover model who can pass for a PoC or ask my cover artist to darken the skin tone. I had great difficulty finding a Filipino man, and finding even a white man/Asian female couple was a challenge [despite this being very common]. I’ve purchased two premade covers where the models could pass for Hispanic, although light skinned. Well, I do wish there were more models to choose from. Thanks for shining a light on this. I’d love to see a cover of yours with an Asian bride in your series.

  21. Jen says:

    Hi Courtney, I found your blog post while incidentally looking for historical romance stock images! I’m a PoC graphic designer and I am frequently dismayed by the sexism and racism (and pretty much all the -isms) of the content in stock image libraries. And you then see actual PoC characters having to be depicted vaguely with Caucasian photos, ie. their distinctive ethnic features cropped off the cover. I actually get very excited on the off-chance I DO see a PoC on a cover, and that is just odd because why is this still an exception?

    To branch off Leslye’s comment, I think publishers still haven’t addressed the elephant in the room – do coloured people in stories TRULY affect sales? More importantly and worryingly, what does the lack of diversity say about their own values and attitudes?

    That last stock on your post though. WTFFFF.

  22. Someday the world will be brown. Not white, black or hispanic, but brown because we will all intermix and I think that will be a great day. I hope at that point there will not be a color barrier for anyone and that our children will not be concerned with the color of their skin. I loved your article and how you choose your covers. They’re always beautiful. I had never noticed the color barrier, but that’s because my heroines are mostly white. As a general rule, I don’t notice people’s color. I’ve met you in person and frankly I never even thought about your heritage. That being said, there should be just as many black and brown photos available as white. And yet the Supreme Court says that racism is no longer a problem in our society. Wonder which planet they’re living on?

  23. John Doppler says:

    Hi Courtney,
    I just stumbled across this blog post after reading another of your articles, and your experience with Shutterstock struck a chord with me. For a recent blog post on women in STEM careers, I browsed Shutterstock for a picture of a young girl doing math.

    My search returned page after page after page of white and Asian faces.

    After the first dozen pages, my determination to cast a young black girl in that role grew. I paged through 3,291 photos. 11 of them were black. 11 out of 3,291. That’s horrifying. I got similar results for “engineer”, “scientist”, “building”, “inventor”, and so on.

    Finding happy, beautiful women of color on the stock photo sites is difficult, but finding *intelligent* women of color on those sites is nearly impossible.

    Eventually, I settled on a photo of an adorable little girl coloring with crayons, which wasn’t perfect, but fit well enough for the meme I was creating. The experience left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

    I haven’t a clue how to confront a problem so widespread and so insidious, but I have to wonder if the problem lies with the photographers or the market. Is there sufficient demand for pictures of PoC in a positive role? Is this a matter of photographers pandering to what they perceive the public wants, and overlooking a substantial, untapped segment of the market in the process?

  24. EelKat says:

    This is why my books intentionally never use images of Humans on the covers. My characters are just too diverse, to guarantee I’ll be able to find enough matching cover images for the whole set. I end up with landscape photos of beaches, flower gardens, or images of cats and masks instead.

  25. Melody says:

    This pretty much confirms my experience – As a cover designer I receive a lot of enquiries from authors who want African American or interracial couples, and sadly I always start with “I will try but please be aware that our choice of images is very, very limited and we may not find what you want…” Once in a while I come across a good image and then I immediately purchase it and make a cover for my premade galleries:

    I try to keep multiracial covers in my galleries all the time but need to put a disclaimer: “Shortage of multiracial covers is due to a shortage of available stock images” as some authors write to me and seem to think that it is simply because I am neglecting them…which is not the case.

  26. Andrea says:

    Taria Reed has a lot of POC stock photos. She’s got some really nice stuff. I’ve noticed a horrible lack of choices when trying to do my own covers and usually have to cobble something together to get what I want. I write a lot of interracial romance books. Talk about hard to find stock? Yeah, that one is tough. Worse than that is trying to find plus size models.

  27. Kai Leakes says:

    Try searching for WOC for fantasy based books as well (and plus size like Andrea said). It’s HORRID! Gives me headaches and makes me cry. I really dislike stock photos just for that purpose. As well as due to the fact the images are so far and in between that every author under the sun ends up using the same images! So you have book covers that are all the same picture just different titles of course. BOO! Thank you for this gripe because I live it daily. *le sigh*

  28. Reese Ryan says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue Courtney. This has been a source of frustration for me in choosing photos for blog posts, etc. I am now working on a historical romance set during the Harlem Renaissance and I’m strongly considering indie publishing it. I’m dreading the search for the perfect photos.

  29. Melissa Blue says:

    Preaching to the choir. And, lol, Minx. Yeah. I’ve complained a lot about this. Believe it or not, Shuttershock actually has a vast amount of POC stock. At least when you compare it to some other sites. At this point I’ve gotten into the habit of using two stock photos and mashing them together because if you think finding a bride is hard, try looking for couples.

    The lack of stock is not only frustrating, but it really does speak to the quality and range of the covers that can be created. If you’re lucky and you spend a few days on many stock sites, you can have a cover that fits your genre. I’m not exaggerating about the days part, especially if you’re looking for something specific. (Erotic images are even harder to come by. Interracial…must be .006 percent of the overall)

    So, yeah. Preaching to the choir.

  30. E.L.R. Jones says:

    It is so amazing that this is out here. I was just screaming about this a few months ago. I write contemporary and paranormal romance novels. A great deal of my characters are in interracial relationships. So, I have a double whammy against me. The first, I rarely find good photos of women of color. The second, finding good ones that are with white or Asian men. I know that there are women that are in love with them some Jimmy but if I see him on one more cover I think I am going to scream bloody murder. (sorry, I digress) The black woman comes in many different shades and with various hairstyles and hair lengths. (don’t get me started on that) I am finding it harder and harder to find great photos for my covers. I have authors that say they don’t write a character until they find the stock photo. If I did this then I wouldn’t have a book published. I’ve had to get creative with my covers.

    I appreciate the fact that someone else brought this issue to light. You want to see some abysmal numbers, then try doing a search for “black woman” and “magic” or “black woman” and “witch.” I almost lost it.

  31. OMG, yes to this entire post! I never knew it was such slim pickings until I started trying to look at pics for a cover.

  32. Cora Blu says:

    I write interracial and multicultural contemporary and paranormal romance. My cover artist says I was her first interracial cover request. She’s since started an image site for new faces with more interracial faces.
    But I find it hard not just for covers to find a black woman but for them to be in more than one pose or don’t have an irritated attitude expression. If you want to make character cards or bookmarks or banners for signings, you’re confined to use the same picture. Seeing them in different positions allows the character to come alive to the reader because you can place them on different backgrounds. I would love to see a black woman with the sun on her face and not always the nightlife at her back.
    Cora Blu

  33. Sharita Lira says:

    TY for this post. As an author of both mm and het interracial romances I find it frustrating that I can’t find a bigger selection of black men or women in RF pics. Even more is the pictures that portray black men as “thuggish.” I’m glad I’m not the only one seeing that problem and to Hollis Shiloh’s point, it’s even worse finding a picture of 2 men together in any color. Why is this when our world is so diverse?

    And the person who made the comment about Jimmy Thomas, I thought I was the only one. lol I did break down and put Jimmy on my next book cover which is m/m. *sigh*

    Great post!

  34. This is an awesome post because I make covers for my books too and I’ve scoured all those stock photography images, burning up precious time that could have been spent on writing or other things. I’d love to see black women in stock photography sites sporting various hairstyles, natural, relaxed, locked etc, etc but unfortunately that’s difficult to find. I have some decent camera equipment and honestly, I really should put out an ad and scout for talent, but that’s so time consuming. Would love for someone to come up with diverse site with various women of color.

  35. Michelle D. Jackson says:

    I love your insightful post. You have summed up the outrage women of color feel about the lack of positive images of women of color that are tasteful and show us in a variety of settings. Perhaps a workaround is to photograph friends and/or family members or even put up ads on a local college campus in an effort to obtain better photos.

  36. Jamie says:

    I write interracial romance. My cover designer has brought it to my attention how “challenging” it can be to find stock photos of interracial couples. I decided to go online one day and browse a few sites myself. Wow. Yes, the availability of stock photos of interracial couples is sadly lacking. Once I can sock away some money, I plan on doing what Alicia McCalla did and book my own photo shoots. Great post, Courtney.

  37. Elise Marion says:

    It’s even harder to find decent pictures of black men … or black couples in those beautiful, sensual poses you see all the pretty white people in. Which is why it’s so hard to have covers designed that accurately depict the people of color inside your book. That is why for my latest Medieval Fantasy Romance, I did my own shoot … because I knew it would be IMPOSSIBLE to find what I wanted.

    I see so many cover artists are now offering their own stock. When I see them post their photos I can’t help but get annoyed because NONE of them ever seem to think to offer more choices in terms of ethnicity. They would considerably grow their business if they put any thought into it at all.

  38. Kristi says:

    I am appalled when I see things like this. It’s sad that there are still such barriers in the day and age. It’s actually quite sad that the human race is still so slow and ignorant. I have to also point out here that I read most all comments in this thread, as an aspiring indie author. I clicked on most all cover artists links to thumb through premade covers with POC in them. No ALL but most should be ashamed, as well as the authors that would use them and write stories to go with them. It’s not bad enough that the images are scarce as it is but those few that are available are 98% of the time added to premade covers that are of a white man/woman sleeping with their “help or slaves”, or are the POC is a gold digger of some sort. Seriously shameful all around!!!!


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Courtney Milan writes historical romance novels like the ones you see to the right. She still remembers bits and pieces from her old lives, where she was (variously) a scientist and a lawyer.

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