Creating Representational Stock Photography with TONL
An interview with Storyblocks’ newest partner, TONL co-founder Karen Okonkwo
By Tia Konitzer
The world is made up of people of all sizes, abilities, ages, backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and races. Stock, as a resource, should represent everyone – no matter who they are.
Last year we launched Re: Stock to focus on representation with stock video. Now we’re thrilled to announce that we’ve partnered with TONL, “a company that seeks to transform the idea of stock photography by displaying images of diverse people and their stories around the world”, to update and expand our image library.
Storyblocks brand manager Tia Konitzer interviewed Karen Okonkwo, the co-founder of TONL, to learn more about their philosophy and work.
You created TONL because you saw a lack of diversity in stock media. When did you decide to turn that recognition into action?
We got started in stock photography after we recognized the lack of ethnically diverse representation online. For me, I noticed it through my blogging business in 2012. I presented the idea to Joshua (TONL’s other co-founder) and he said he wouldn’t do it unless I did it with him. We were both at capacity with other endeavors so we let the idea go. The idea resurfaced in our minds after the fatal tragedies against Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016. We realized that the narrative of our community was being written wrongfully and we knew that imagery could help pivot that.
I’m sure 2016 TONL is very different from TONL in 2020. What were the early days of TONL like?
We took our time launching TONL. We spent one year doing what we called research and development. We considered the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats within the stock photography industry. We reflected on our business structure: did we want to have investors or did we want to bootstrap? Once we came to terms with more of the administrative and logistical aspects of the business, we got into the platform and design. We interviewed different photographers that we wanted to bring on as initial contributors and we hired a website developer to start to bring our site to life. It was a labor of love. We had an accidental soft launch of our site (a friend tweeted a private message we had sent to friends and family) and so it allowed us to test the interest of our current market and make adjustments based on their input. With this allegiance and love for our company, when we launched we were immediately profitable and started to get known quickly through word of mouth via social media and the various publications featuring us.
Immediate profitability is every entrepreneur’s dream. What would you attribute to that?
Since we took our time doing the market research before we launched, we knew the demand would be high since it was an area receiving little focus. Photographers have often had their work rejected because it wasn’t “All-American” which was code for not white enough. Customers either wanted diverse imagery and couldn’t find it, or saw a small amount of it depicted on major platforms but lacking true representation.
Partnering with Storyblocks
Speaking of growth, Storyblocks is extremely excited for this partnership. How did you first hear about Storyblocks? And what about Storyblocks piqued your interest in partnering?
I had briefly heard about Storyblocks through Neil Mody, the CEO of Headliner. Admittedly, I had forgotten about him mentioning about the brand and really got familiar with it when Storyblocks reached out to partner with us. Joshua and I loved the whole concept of the Storyblocks business model.
Are there any specific themes in the 10,000 images that are being licensed to Storyblocks? Why these themes?
All of our images fall under 9 categories: Tone, Taste, Tradition, Trust, Technology, Trend, Take, Today and Travel. In doing our market research, we felt these 9 categories really encapsulated the general image needs that people have. We wanted to stick in the “T” family to pay homage to our name.
What are your top 3 favorite images being licensed and why?
Albino people have long been portrayed in the media as freak shows, outcasts – perpetuating a damaging image of these people. Nodumo is the woman pictured here and we loved this image because it captured her natural beauty and depicted the normalcy of who she is. Nodumo had reached out to us asking if we had any albino people reflected in our image library bank. We hadn’t at the time so it was nice to have her help us introduce people like her: View image.
This is just an awesome editorial shot just showing the beauty in Black skin and athleticism: View image.
This is our most purchased image. It again depicts the beauty of Blackness and overall unity of a group of Black women fellowshipping with each other: View image.
What has been the most interesting use of TONL content that you have seen or heard about?
Although not right, somebody was in Haiti and showed us a billboard of one of our images from our Travel collection to advertise a cell phone. They definitely never bought the proper license to do that, haha.
Representation in stock media
On the topic of using stock media, a lot of people shy away from stock content with cultural diversity because it can feel too forced and uninspiring – almost like a check the box. However, TONL stock images always feel authentic. Is this intentional? And if so, how is this carried throughout the artist selection & curation process?
Absolutely. We tell every subject to come as they are and we generally like to have a conversation with them prior in order to get to know them. That level of comfort makes for a more fun and comfortable experience during the photo session.
When people are welcomed to come as they are, it also entails us meeting them in their place of happiness. So we like to make the stage their real place of business, their real home, their real workout experience. This translates well when we publish these images because they feel relatable.
Storyblocks recognizes the importance of having stock content that showcases cultural diversity, and obviously TONL does as well. But how would you explain the importance to someone who doesn’t see the broader impact that stock media has on representation?
This is a quote straight from my TEDx talk: “Visuals are a powerful way that we process things around us. Images have the power to shape our culture. They should not only reflect the truth, but they should normalize it so that diversity no longer shocks us.
When underrepresented people see authentic images of people who look like them on a billboard, in a magazine ad, in a newspaper article or on a store’s site the message absorbed is “I am seen. I belong.”
Why should businesses, small & large be using more diverse stock content in their ads, commercials, and other marketing materials?
All the studies out there prove that more diverse content yields a high/profitable business return. Check out the “Future Consumer Report” by WGSN for that data.
What would you say to a business that wants to have more representation in their contributor-base and the content that they distribute, but find it to be too difficult to find minority talent?
Take your time; the talent is out there. You can’t reduce your efforts to one channel and then get fed up or tired when that is coming up short. Be intentional and diligent and you will find the talent.