Stock Photo Stereotypes Assignment

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Gardner_Mar15_217.jpgSometimes the best assignments are borne of the worst situations. Virginia Tech’s installation of WordPress became hopelessly slow recently. It was taking over 60 seconds for a page to load. Sometimes the pages timed out. It was happening in the classroom and off campus, no matter what Internet connection or machine students were using.

I ultimately decided that it was unfair to ask students to continue working on a project when the technology wasn’t performing properly. I turned in a technical support request and began looking for a short-term project to fill in while WordPress was being fixed.

In my collection of assignment ideas, I found the Mashable article “Vince Vaughn ingeniously promotes new film with stock photos and the Hubspot article “13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography.” That gave me my inspiration: students would explore stereotypes in relationship to stock photography and then create their own satirical article, in the style of a Buzzfeed article.

Step One: Discussion of Stereotypes

I began by asking students to brainstorm stereotypes about college students, without explaining how we would use the lists. I only promised that we would use them later in the class. We used a shared Google Doc in each class to collect students’ ideas:

With their lists complete, I asked students to discuss the Vince Vaughn stock photos and the 13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography. Next, we looked at some stock photos of college students on iStock and Shutterstock, and then discussed how the images relied on stereotypes much like the business photos we had looked at. Looking back at their brainstormed lists, students talked about how some of their ideas were represented in the photos and why other ideas were not there. Finally, we went over the assignment as a class, including looking at some additional stock photography articles. A perfectly-timed NPR article on the Rent-a-Minority website led to lots of discussion.

Step Two: Group Photo Shoots

Working in small groups, students reviewed the stereotypes and chose a focus for their project. They collected props and decided on wardrobe. Those who did not want to be in the photos didn’t have to be, but everyone had to participate in the project. We devoted a full 50-minute session to the photo shoot. I set some ground rules, which included the following:

  • If the groups went too far from our classroom building, they had to tell me in advance.
  • If the groups had questionable props, they had to let me know so I could come to their rescue if necessary. [There were some empty beer bottles and red Solo cups.]
  • At least one person in the group had to write down the phone number for the classroom phone to use if something went wrong and they needed me.

Students scurried off, while I watched their belongings in the classroom and helped them. One group wanted to take photos in the bathroom, but because they were mixed genders they were worried about getting in trouble for being in the “wrong” bathroom. I served as their escort. There was much giggling that class session, and during every section at least one student proclaimed this “the best assignment ever.”

After taking their photos, I asked each group to upload their photos to a shared folder and to make sure that everyone in their group had access.

Step Three: Collaborative Writing

With their photos complete, during the next two sessions, groups worked on editing their photos and writing the accompany Buzzfeed-style article. We discussed the expectations for the article before groups began. Each article needed to do the following:

  • incorporate the group’s stock photo images.
  • provide commentary or analysis on the images.
  • uses layout and design choices to make the document easy to read.
  • be written and shared online.

Their pieces were published on a class website, without students’ names attached to the pieces. Since the photos show stereotypes, they could be misconstrued by someone seeing them out of context. I want to avoid having these photos and articles coming up when some future employer does a Google search on their names. In addition, students individually wrote an assessment of their group’s work to let me know how each member contributed to the project.


I think we were all a bit disappointed to have to go back to the WordPress portfolios when the stock photo project ended. Students were highly engaged in critical thinking and webmaking, and they had a great deal of fun at the same time. I’m still grading their work, but what I have seen so far is nicely done. I hope to share some examples in the future, but for now, I need to focus on giving everyone feedback.

Have you worked with stock photos in the classroom? This project worked well, so I am looking for ways to improve on it. If you have some advice, please leave me a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

[Photo: vaTechonline by USDA, on Flickr]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.