How designers unwittingly dehumanise.


How designers unwittingly dehumanise.

In 2007, not long after I’d gone full time into design, I used this stock photo for a Not for Profit’s brochure. I wasn’t really a fan of stock photos, especially using photos like this. It always felt wrong – both for the subject (release or not) and the photographers and models who missed out on income for commissioned projects. I advised against it, but, they were a not-for-profit, and I needed the work, so I didn’t push back too hard. I probably should have.

Now, this could be one of those instances where I am assuming too much. A release was signed. I don’t know the identity of the photographer. It could be her kid, but based on the portfolio I am not convinced. I didn’t even think to check at the time. That’s on me. But nobody else did, either.

Smiling Aboriginal Boy. Watermarked. 4 Credits.

This stuff has always played on my mind. I have always been conscious of my role in perpetuating the status quo. I was a Child Protection worker as a graduate, so had some experience on the ground, and I took that seriously. Ultimately, I would have these types of (attempted) ethical conversations many times over my career. Off-shoring was exploitative, stock photography was exploitative, spec work was exploitative, but over time, you not only learn to pick your battles… you learn that people start to think you’re a bit of a bummer.

I have talked a lot about how I quit running an agency in 2019, but I don’t think people realise how deep and wide my disillusionment with tech & business was when I did it (and how much worse it is now). It was so many things, big AND small. Paper cuts AND blows to the head. Bit by bit, watching exploitation and mediocre become baked into everything that was supposed to be liberating and creative, and everyone pretending it didn’t happen, because they were getting paid the big bucks… for putting a smiling face on the cover.

It was lots of things. Spec work. “Exposure” for millionaires. Non-paying clients. People getting a free consult and then taking my IP. Stock photographers who make money in this manner. All of us creative, honest and bold people being told that we could participate in this revolution, and we had a shot at success if we just bent a little further towards that corporate credibility carrot, but ultimately found ourselves used for Wokewashing and keeping a seat warm and lending street cred to the corporate midwits that would eventually takeover and gentrify the Internet (and… eventually, the mainstream political left).

It was lots of little things, every day. Slowly baked in. Slowly normalised. SEO. Keywords. Tags. The race to the bottom. Being told to behave. Called negative. People obsessed with niches, funnels and growth hacks, with no regard for the bigger wrong that their whole short-term, selfish mindset propped up, such as only being able to find usable photographs by writing things such as “happy ugly fat” to get a normal-looking person, or, even worse terms for specific racial or class demographics. And people like me, holding our noses and having to do this on behalf of massive corporations, unwilling to pay photographers and models at the full market rate. And, of course, enabled by an ecosystem full of people willing to do and say anything for a buck. Some of those people are desperate and exploited/misled, in which case, understandable; but others were selfish and opportunistic, and definitely knew better.

I couldn’t push back. I tried. But I lost. So, I quit.

I still see this photo everywhere. It showed up again today, 15 years later, staring at me as I look for a paper on Indigenous Child Development Milestones, in what is a pretty emotionally harrowing assignment on cross cultural clinical assessment of behavioural problems in five year olds. Five years old: a pivotal time where a child learns where they fit, who they are, and how they interact with the world around them.

And there is his face. Five, maybe four. Maybe six. I don’t know. But what I do know is that at the time he was learning what his place in the world was – he was snapped, smiling, and used as the poster child for an entire system that decided what his place in the world is, before he was even born: you better play along, smile, and not push back, or you’ll feel the full force of those institutions that are using your smiling face in perpetuity in exchange for 4 iStock credits.

It’s uncanny that the photo showed up just now. It’s a reminder of exactly why I quit when I could easily coast at this time in my career. I could easily avoid all this pain of learning how to really help people, rather than build creative assets that tell everyone how corporations care about you, and will definitely care harder if you’ll sign up, buy now, learn more or like and subscribe. I could mostly certainly make way more than zero money by not pushing back, pretending it’s all okay, and not be such a bummer.

Every time I see his face, I wonder where he is now. He’s in his twenties. Is he okay? I wonder if the kid who was the face of many a brochure glossing over the pain and torment of his people is okay, and I wonder how he feels about being the face of institutions that promised to help him have a better life, and give him every opportunity to thrive.

I sure hope so. I’m guessing he was up against many obstacles put in front of him by the many bureaucracies that used his face. Much like every brand does with every other cause. We’re all just customers, and assets, and data points to nudge… or to use as a smiling face for systemic cruelty.

I feel guilty as I write this, because I also realise that it is a fleeting thought in my day, and to confront it fully by finding out the answer is a bit too much. Truth is, like most, I have wondered how he is, and I moved on. I wonder if I should even write this post, because it feels like this kid has been used so many times, to tell a story that isn’t his, and to support whatever narrative is attached to this evergreen photo of a moment in his formative years, where he was figuring out where he fit in this world, and finding out that it was not for him, and the organisations that donned his face on the cover were complicit. But I weigh that hesitation over making this about me, with a good faith discussion of a broader problem, and hope that getting people to think, and promote a shift in thinking… and… shit this stuff is hard.

I’m sorry.

This is why other marketers never liked me. It was why I was sidelined. I always try to do better, and think things through, and often fail and end up making it weird. But, I try to hold up a mirror. Oh, and I don’t take money in exchange for my soul… anymore.

It was ultimately why I quit, when I saw the vision for the Internet I signed onto was irretrievably dead, and I had to be willing to pretend it was all okay, wrap it all in buzzwords and slogans on behalf of a machine that used to be for the creative people, built on trust, transparency and emancipation, but now only works for the intellectually and morally void. Where the GPL and Terms of Service were a symbol of trust and paying it forward, not permission to just take whatever you wanted, kick the ladder for everyone behind you and then sending in your corporate lawyers to quibble over the GPL and Terms of Service.

I am now studying Psychology. I wrote this when I was supposed to be writing an essay that I found a bit too painful to face, and needed a break. Psychology is an institution with its own dark past. I’m currently doing a dive on Indigenous child development, and it’s rough going, man. It’s a real bummer. But, what we’ve let happen is a disgrace.

At least I can push back now.

To that kid, I’m sorry. I hope you’re good.

(If you see this, get in touch… I’d love to know. I would do a reverse image search on Google but am afraid of what racist shit their AI will show… which is a whole other problem. Fuck those guys. Forgive me.).

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