They say a picture paints a thousand words and they can be an invaluable part of your website design and content. Photos can do a great job of portraying your work and conveying emotion.
Some niches within the charity sector lend themselves well to photographs for use on their site. International development charities spring to mind, as do pets ones. I’m sure that Wateraid and the Dogs Trust probably have a big bank of images available to use online.
Other niches aren’t as tangible or there are confidentiality/privacy reasons why using photography is impossible or inappropriate. Sexual abuse counselling, skin disease charities for example.
Photos of service users vs stock photos
Where possible it’s obviously best to use your own photos. As I’ve said before with case studies, I think it’s the case that quality is better than quantity. If you can find one good one to go in the hero section of your homepage then that’s a big piece of the puzzle completed. It’s hard for small charities to afford their own professional photo shoot, and some projects just lend themselves better to photography than others. There may be confidentiality/privacy/child protection reasons why using your own photos is just not feasible.
Stock photos are often great quality in terms of the lighting and composition – way better than you will probably take with your phone or camera. They sometimes can work well but the photos are shot with a commercial use in mind. They’re often bought/used by people looking for images to make their Powerpoint presentations more interesting. Most of them look very ‘American’ in the sense that the people in them are very photogenic and have perfect white teeth!
The drawbacks of stock imagery for charity sites
The danger is that these stock images can make your site look quite generic and impersonal. Or that they will reinforce outdated stereotypes. Because of the way they are used and found within the huge stock libraries, the photographers invariably create images that instantly sum up a keyword in a single photo. The best way of doing that is often with props to add additional context – which maybe great for many casual users but is often problematic for charity website owners looking for some authentic images.
So for example the best way of instantly making someone look like a doctor is to hang a stethoscope around his/her neck, even though in real life you never see them doing that. That in itself isn’t so harmful but it does create a barrier between you and your audience because the photos look very staged and don’t reflect people’s own experiences when they come into contact with health services.
Perhaps more damaging from a stereotyping or stigma perspective are some of the clichéd photos for issues such as drug/alcohol misuse or homelessness. We’ve built sites for charities in both of these sectors recently and I’ve spent a lot of time browsing through thousands of photos in the stock library sites.
Finding the needle in the haystack
As you can see above, searching for the relevant keyword (in this case, ‘homeless man’ and ‘alcoholic’) will usually just return pages and pages of clichéd photos that reinforce exactly the stereotype that you’re trying to overcome (that homeless people are older, shabby looking people who sleep on the streets. That you can tell someone with an alcohol misuse problem because they are slumped over an empty bottle etc).
So you’re often better off coming at your search from another angle. Instead of searching for your main keyword (e.g. homeless woman), you should try thinking of what your ideal photo would look like and trawl through images for that. And as abhorrent as it sounds, you often have to specify ‘ordinary woman’ or ‘plain woman’ to try to filter out the majority of the photos, especially when it comes to women, which are of smiling perfectly-tanned models. Honestly, searching for images on these sites will quickly undermine your faith in humanity!
How to use stock images as part of your site’s design
If you have your own images (and they’re half-decent) then you should make the most use of them. They can do a lot of the design work for you – just make them big enough to let them shine.
Stock images can occasionally be useful even if you can’t find any suitable ones that reflect your work. They can add a bit of visual interest to the site without taking too much attention away from the rest of the content.
That’s the route we went down with the ARC site because it’s dealing with such a sensitive issue that it’s pretty impossible to find suitable images to match the content in the ‘For Parents’ section. We went with flowers there because they’re calming and don’t have any intentional or unintentional meaning/context with regard to what the reader should be thinking or should do next.
Or you could decide to forego images altogether if they are too problematic or cliched. And you could use bold typography and colour schemes to add visual interest to the site’s design instead. That’s what we did with the Alcohol Health Alliance site because alcohol misuse is often such a hidden harm that it’s so hard to depict it in a photograph.
Where to find the best stock images for your charity site
Photographers tend to upload their images to multiple stock libraries so quite often you’ll find the same photo on multiple sites. Just bear that in mind before you pay £20 to buy one from iStock or Getty.
Personally we use Depositphotos quite a lot. Not because they have the best selection but because you can often pick up deals that give you 100 image download credits for about £30. It pains me to give any of them any money and feed this horrible misogynist industry.
Stocksy is a cooperative so they (in theory) give their photographers a better deal. Pixabay is mostly free. Unsplash is popular because it has high quality, free images but they’re often too ‘arty’ to be of much use in charity sites.
Kudos to Images of Empowerment – positive images of women that counteract the usual photos used to depict global poverty. More initiatives like that are needed, not just to make our photo-sourcing task easier, but to make it easier for journalists and media editors to use less stereotypical images to accompany their stories.