GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Kenya Robinson remembers working on a marketing campaign and searching for a stock image of a Black woman wrapping her hands for kickboxing. With over 18,000 stock photos coming up in her search, she couldn’t find the look she needed.
“It struck me. I had been to a kickboxing class, I have had the opportunity to really live and continue to live a really full lifestyle; I’ve done a lot of cool things that I couldn’t find the representation of a Black person,” she said. “I ended up having to color (it). You know, color the skin tone using Photoshop.”
It’s a practice she doesn’t like to resort to, but with generic looks and photos not tied to a specific identity, she said it was a temporary fix for what over the years she realized was a growing issue.
Now she’s on a mission to restock image databases with photos of visibly Black individuals with BLIXEL:(Re)stock Image Project.
“The whole idea is to address this whole notion of the stock image and kind of the role that it plays and how we might restock that,” she said. “It’s not a replacement, it’s a refresher; it’s a reimagining; it’s a reinvigoration.”
The Gainesville resident said the idea has been in her head since 2014 and has started to gain more traction over the last few years, even partnering with the Orlando Museum of Art to bring awareness to the effort. Yet, Kenya said she’s had to do a lot of the heavy lifting on her own to help cover the various types of stock images lacking representation from people of African descent.
“I really produce the shoots,” she said. “So everything from the scene, to prop selection to location scouting, to speaking to each of the models individually, to collecting their photo release forms, to collecting the volunteer release forms for photographers, to scheduling, all of that deal.”
The artist said she’s had many volunteers willing to help elevate her vision and she believes its because people want to have a say on how their community is portrayed.
“Especially as a Black person, our images have been utilized in ways that we didn’t have control over and not in the most uplifting of ways,” she said. “You know, more people have seen a man get murdered than a Black person celebrating a birthday or drinking water or handling an iPad.”
Kenya points out how stock images can often be too vague, showing photographs of ethnically ambiguous people to apply to a wide audience or emphasize a stereotype. Recalling a moment when she tried searching for a casual image of a person drinking water, she realized that one photo could truly change the perception of how people see those who may be different from them.
“The types of photos I found with a person of color were of someone in another country cupping their hands with water,” she said. “There’s not a choice to hydrate, you know, it’s what it’s a part of what keeps you alive and healthy.”
She said realizations like this one inspired another theme for a photo set: rest and leisure.
“I see non-white people, resting, like in a hammock or even crashing on the couch, the television illuminating a face. The fact that you don’t see that (in stock imagery) I think about all the time,” she said. “I think that this whole notion of leisure is also really important to me. Whether it’s rest or just leisure, I definitely want to see more pictures of that because I’d be having fun.”
It’s everyday activities that Kenya hopes to immortalize with stock images. She said there are many milestones she intends to recreate for use, experiences that people of African descent find joy in.
“I would look up like happy birthday and you would see very few Black people or any people who were not white visibly, represent it. And so I’m like, ‘this is not just a one-off experience this is something that is systematic.’ And so, I have the tools as an artist to address that creatively,” she said.
As a creator, Kenya said she works on BLIXEL as an ongoing project with no hard release date. The dream is to one day release a stock image service for companies to subscribe to, and to pay her volunteers and photographers. For now, she’s impressed so many people are helping her achieve this goal and will continue to restock images as best she can.
“We are all deserving of the full human experience,” she said. “Even online.”