Why stock images of depression are terribly inaccurate

When you search Google Images for depression, a stream of contrived photographs approximates the bleak outlook of the condition.

There’s a guy massaging his forehead ruinously. There’s a girl sitting on the floor, cross-legged and despairing. There’s a man leaning against a darkened wall, his gloom permeating the shadows.

Everything is black, grey and ominous.

There’s a teenager sat in a field, thunderous clouds above. There’s a woman pulling her hair out, dejected and confused. There’s a total lack of hope and optimism, the qualities we need most.

Apparently, there must be a playbook handed to all photographers asked to capture a stock image of depression. Dim the lights, cast the shadows and ruffle the hair. Head in hands, knees to chest, a single tear smudging too much mascara. Water is a fitting backdrop, apparently, while interminable vistas seem to be a good descriptor of helplessness. 

This trend must stop. We cannot go on portraying mental ill health in such a prosaic manner. The issue is more nuanced than these generic silhouettes, and besides, our understanding of the subject has evolved beyond mere platitudes.

What does depression look like?

Depression can make us curl up in a ball and stay in bed for days. Depression can cause us to have bloodshot eyes and stare morosely into the horizon. Depression can paralyse our senses and suck us into a murky abyss. But not always.

Depression can also occur at the most unexpected times in the most innocuous settings. The black dog can bark behind any smile and haunt any happy moment. This disease can manifest itself internally while having no external machination.

Depression doesn’t look like anything in particular but rather everything in general. There is no accurate stock image for depression, just as there is no formulaic image for humanity.

We need to dig deeper.

How to tackle mental health stigma

People talk a lot about the stigma that surrounds mental ill health, and I have experienced such ignorance firsthand. Decoding negative attitudes and implicit prejudice requires education and honest inquisition. By illustrating depression in such extremist fashion, bad stock photographs tinker with the social definition and recognition of such illnesses, contributing to the misconceptions.

When people associate depression with doom, gloom and self-hating despondency almost by osmosis, they become blind to the reality that mental ill health eludes definitive categorisation.

When people read newspaper articles containing photos that misrepresent depression, they gain a false awareness of the disease.

When people scroll the internet and see innumerable posts of severe sadness, they become conditioned to view depression as one catch-all state in one cookie-cutter shape.

Yes, people with depression are sitting on benches in the rain. And yes, people with depression are massaging their head in search of relief. I do those things myself and that’s very real. But people with depression are also going to work every day in all forms of employment. People with depression are also performing at exceptionally high levels despite their pain. People with depression are smiling out there, believe it or not, and such moments of relief do not invalidate their diagnosis.

We are people, not robots. Not everything is black and white. 

Inaccurate photographs can be triggers for depression

When we do feel down, isolated and lonely, seeing a photograph depicting that scene in dramatic style does not help. In fact, stumbling upon an image of imposing negativity while feeling unstable can exacerbate our pain and trigger unhealthy reactions. Before placing an image into the public domain, we must analyse the impact it may have on other people.

Depression is a sickness, not a weakness. Any assertion that suffering with mental ill health precludes one’s ability to function and excel is deeply inaccurate. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, but the former is shrouded in negative interpretation while the latter is accepted as crucially important.

Stock imagery relies on stereotype and conjecture, tradition and subjective opinion. History tells us that such attributes aren’t always conducive with the promotion of fact. The line between stereotype and discrimination is indeed precarious, just as  the nexus between stock photography and myopic intolerance threatens to stifle our progress.

According to the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words, and those creating, selecting, distributing and collating photographs must be more discerning in their duty. We consume more content than ever before, on myriad platforms across multiple devices. To a certain extent, human opinion has been outsourced to Google, Twitter and Facebook, our reactions to events devolving to basic agreement or disagreement with a relentless string of megabyte assertions.

We think almost vicariously nowadays, subconsciously regurgitating the views of influencers in a particular niche. That’s why the war on bad stock imagery must be intensified, because our brains are now wired to learn through digital diffusion, and if the content in that realm is biased and unbalanced, we will not learn in the correct manner. And if we do not learn, we will not eradicate stigma.

The link between stock imagery and discrimination

There is no stock image of a vegan. There is no stock image of a Muslim. There is no stock image of a democrat or a republican, an Asian or a European. There is also no stock image of a person suffering with depression, and I will continue to campaign for change in that regard.

We have moved on from those damaging, hurtful clichés, and we have progressed beyond the dangerous categorisation of people based on solitary characteristics.

Some organisations are bucking the trend, blazing their own trail with regard to varied and positive imagery surrounding mental ill health. Time to Change, a charity I champion, has a searchable bank of free images that can be used to portray mental ill health in a fairer guise. The Mind Map, a great website for which I occasionally write, also uses optimism in all of its photographic output.

How to portray depression in stock photography

There are more imaginative, realistic and effective ways of portraying depression than merely deferring to a ‘headclutcher’ thumbnail basking in darkness. There is a brighter, more human way of communicating our struggle. It just takes time and inclination. It just requires thought.

If you want to know what depression looks like, head over to my Instagram account. In the past two years, I have posted a lot of photographs on that social platform, many of them illustrating moments of apparent happiness, pride and contentment. But what if I told you that, for perhaps the last three years, every single picture in which I have appeared is actually a display of real-life depression?

Yes, the smiling photos on holiday. Yes, the collages from parties and promotions. Yes, even the shots of my clothes and watches, my cars and books. I was depressed in all of those photos. Every single one. That’s what depression looks like, at least for me. That’s what life is like when you are struggling for the time and space in which to think. That’s how I would illustrate depression, with not a clutched head in sight.

Let's get real, here. Times have changed.


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