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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Common pitfalls to avoid in the visual representation of race and ethnicity  

Published 3 June 2024 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 5 min read

While there is growing awareness of the need to demonstrate diversity in terms of race and ethnicity in images, organizations still fall into common traps. In the latest installment of our visual representation series, Rebecca Swift, SVP Creative at Getty Images, shares tips to ensure images don’t tokenize or misrepresent communities of color.

Race and ethnicity are often combined and frequently confused. While race is a social construct used to describe a group of people who share physical attributes – most notably in how skin color was defined to justify enslavement in the US, segregation as part of the Jim Crow laws, or during the apartheid period in South Africa – ethnicity, on the other hand, refers to a shared cultural background, history, or descent.

Most countries define people by their ethnic groups. For example, Latino or Aboriginal/First Nation Australian. Although there are approximately 87 ethnic groups in Europe alone, marketers tend to take a broad approach to ethnicity when thinking about inclusion using White, Black/African, South Asian (Indian, Pakistani/ Bangladeshi), East/Southeast Asian, Indigenous people (e.g., Native American, Māori New Zealanders etc.), and Hispanic/Latino/Latina.

Awareness of the basic need to depict more people from different communities of color has been on the rise, even before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Yet these efforts are still often fraught with mistakes and misunderstandings. Tokenism is still an issue when it comes to the representation of all minority ethnic groups, and people of color are twice as likely (according to Getty Images VisualGPS studies) to appear only as part of a multi-ethnic group than a white person. The risk here is that representation backfires when people feel they are only being shown to fill a quota.

With the rise of hate crime incidents against certain races and ethnicities during the pandemic, the need to depict cultures and communities more authentically has never been more important.

Here I outline some of the common mistakes organizations still make when considering race and ethnicity in their imagery:

There is a need to depict cultures and communities more authentically. Image: MoMo productions

Be wary of over-representation

At Getty Images, our most popular visuals still tend to depict people of color in multiracial groups. Moreover, some groups are more likely to be depicted than others.

For example, in the UK, the representation of black people is around 26%, compared to the actual demographic mix of around 3%. In contrast, the largest ethnic minority in the UK, South Asian, only appears 1.7% of the time, far below the population percentage.

In these instances, organizations may think they are being inclusive because their marketing material features people of color, but they are failing to recognize the great diversity of ethnicities, backgrounds, cultures, and languages, that make up a certain population. In doing so, they undermine their authenticity.

People from the Asian community are shown at work 45% of the time, but rarely in leadership positions. Image: Getty

Avoid reinforcing bias and stereotypes

Just because a photo includes people from multiracial backgrounds, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are represented inclusively.

At Getty Images, when we see Indian people represented visually, they are shown with technology, such as a computer or a smartphone, one-third of the time. This compares to a fifth of the time for white British people and a tenth of the time for black people.

Our VisualGPS research also finds that when people from the Asian community are represented, they are shown at work 45% of the time, but rarely in leadership positions. White people are 10 times more likely to be depicted in a leadership role in business even though British Chinese workers have higher average earnings than their white British counterparts. When visualizing minority ethnic groups at work, don’t overlook images showing them in a greater variety of roles and scenarios, such as managers, entrepreneurs, or educators.

In Germany, people of Asian origin are often missing in images depicting families. Image: Portra

Don’t overlook certain ethnicities

Our research shows that Asian communities are visually underrepresented across all regions and in certain demographics and roles. There is also a lack of intersectionality – that is, representation of Asian people as part of the LGBTQ+ community, with different body types or disabilities, or even of different ages.

For example, in the UK, Asian people are rarely shown as children or young adults. In Germany, people of Asian origin are once again over-represented in working scenarios, but missing in images depicting families, or having meaningful relationships with friends. Think about how visual representation could show multidimensional people engaging in hobbies or expressing interests.

A notable example of a brand that has sought to defy traditional stereotypes in its representation of people of color is the UK mobile phone network Three. In this TV commercial, Three shows a black couple carrying out various activities that have traditionally been depicted by white people, such as gardening, on a hike in the countryside, out for dinner at a sushi restaurant, and relaxing at a spa.

The brand also sponsors the TV show Gogglebox on commercial television and has turned the tokenistic stereotype on its head by featuring a South Asian family at home and one of the sons has a white girlfriend.


The key questions

Questions to ask yourself when considering ethnicity as part of being more inclusive in your communications: 

  • Are your efforts relying on tokenism when depicting race/ethnicity? 
  • Are you humanizing the people you depict by telling robust, authentic stories about communities of color? 
  • Are you checking the roles that people are playing in your visuals? 
  • Are people of color featured in a variety of roles and professions? Are they displaying a variety of hobbies, interests, or lifestyles? 
  • Are you showing people of color in moments of celebration and enjoyment (not just at work)? 
  • Are you showing a range of skin tones, facial features, and hair textures, reflecting diversity within all communities? 
  • Are you showing a person’s race/ethnicity alongside other intersections of their identity (e.g., gender identity, age, disability, sexual orientation)? 
  • Are you reflecting the cultural nuances and traditions of different ethnicities, especially around cultural and food traditions? 

For more information consult the following resources: The Black Experience, Nosotros, Asian representation in the UK, Asian representation in France, and Asian representation in Germany.

All of Getty’s D&I guides are available to download here, and you can read other articles in the series here and here.

The image at the top of the page is by Klaus Vedfelt.


Rebecca Swift

Rebecca Swift

VP Global Head of Creative Insights at Getty Images 

Rebecca runs the Creative Insights team, who set the content strategy for Getty Images and run global research projects investigating the future of visual communications. She leads the D&I initiatives at Getty Images and is focused on evolving visual representation, leading partnerships such as #ShowUs with Dove (winner of 40+ international creative awards, including a Glass Lion and Effies). Rebecca has a PhD in photography.   


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