Imagine you are a vegan magazine. Specifically, you are VegNews, and you need some photos to run with, for instance, your story about 99 Things You Must Do, a story you're calling a "vegan bucket list." One of the things on the list is to eat a vegan sundae. Great, right? So you need a picture of a vegan sundae. Who doesn't love a picture of ice cream?
There are a lot of ways to get photos. Some are expensive, like making a vegan sundae and hiring a food photographer and getting an actual photo of your vegan sundae. Some are much, much easier, like just ... using a stock photo of a sundae that you buy from a stock photography company.
Of course, that probably won't be a vegan sundae.
And that's exactly where the photo with the "99 Things" article came from — it's a stock photo of a sundae, but it's not a vegan sundae (unless it happens to be one by accident; it's not labeled as one in the database where it can be purchased).
Similarly, this is a burger, and this is mac and cheese, and this is a red velvet cupcake. But they're not vegan; they're straight-up stock photography of regular, ordinary, non-vegan versions of food. In fact, based on the stock photos I found very easily, that last one appears to be a stock photo of a cupcake with a stock photo of a Japanese flag on a toothpick blended into it, which you can kind of tell when you look.
This came up in a blog post on Wednesday by vegan blogger Quarrygirl, who pointed out a variety of examples, including some of the ones I've used here. The story is now boomeranging around the Internet (I saw it at Metafilter), and while there are reports of earlier comments being deleted when folks tried to point out this problem, comment threads are now filled with folks pointing out stock photos and complaining that non-vegan food is being used in a vegan magazine. It's not very surprising that this has made readers unhappy.
And now, VegNews has acknowledged in a statement that they do indeed use non-vegan stock photography to illustrate their vegan magazine.
There's nothing scandalous about stock photography, of course — we use it here when there's not another good photo option. In fact, we use iStockphoto, one of the same stock databases they're using at VegNews. It's not the best or most interesting solution in many cases, but you can see on the poetry post I wrote earlier in the day a good example of when it can be helpful. What do you use for a picture of poetry? It can be handy.
Unfortunately, when you use pictures of non-vegan food in a vegan publication, you're playing with a whole different kettle of ... well, not fish, obviously. Kettle of something, though. It certainly can read like an implication that if you used vegan food, it wouldn't look good enough, so that's why you're using that juicy beef burger. It can seem like you're disrespecting vegan food in a magazine for vegans. It's tough to think of a better way to anger your readers, other than including a ham hock with every issue.
Their explanation is about cost and availability and says, "In an ideal world we would use custom-shot photography for every spread, but it is simply not financially feasible for VegNews at this time." I suspect that's the real explanation. I think if there were stock photos of a vegan sundae, they'd use them. I don't think they consider vegan food to be ugly.
But there's another issue eating at readers, which is that some of the stock photos apparently accompany recipes in the print magazine (recipes aren't found online, as far as I can see). So you're making a recipe that's accompanied by a photo, as this blogger points out with regard to a Banana Cream Pie recipe that's accompanied by a coconut cream pie stock photo. So it's not going to look like the picture, because it's ... not even a picture of the recipe.
It's a mess, quite frankly, and the VegTimes statement makes it clear that they know it is. While the statement says that they hope to reach a point in the future where they won't be using any non-vegan photography, there's certainly not a commitment to stop using it immediately. I would think transparency would be a great help; when you do see stock photos here, you can tell they're stock photos right away, because there's always a photo credit. Perhaps that's the direction they're going to go at VegNews, too.
For the time being, they're tolerating a lot of very angry vegans who didn't realize they were spending a lot of time looking at a fair amount of animal-based food all along. It's good that they made a statement quickly, I think, but it looks like for a while, they've got some unhappy readers on their hands. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.