Art Direction

Selecting Imagery for a Multicultural Campaign

We often get requests to fulfill our clients’ needs for photography that will make different cultural groups feel inclusive, when a client crosses cultural boundaries. Those boundaries could be different groups across the city or different groups across different countries.

There seems to be two different types of images. The first type is cultural landmarks or regional relevancy. The second type is people or lifestyle. In either case the biggest thing to avoid is a stereotypical shot, or a canned shot that looks like a stock photo. I’ll explain further.

In the first case you don’t want to find a photo of a geographic location that is not identifiable, for example, a lush green forest surrounding a waterfall might be what is really there, but it doesn’t convey a specific place, unless it’s a landmark like Yosemite’s Half Dome, or New Zealand’s Fjords. Rather focus on a unique way of seeing what is known. For example an interesting reflection of the Sydney Opera house as opposed to the opera house itself. In another situation, like a lesser-known Eastern European city, a skyline might work better than a church because it includes a recognizable landscape that works for many cultures without singling out any one.

The second major category - people or lifestyle, you’ll definitely want to eliminate anything that looks contrived. Handshakes are a dead giveaway of stock photography, as well as people with pearly-white toothpaste commercial smiles.  Instead focus on either action-oriented, candid poses. Look for more assertive or positive facial expressions, a faint smile, but not flat, may do more to convey an honest attitude being projected about your product or service. There isn’t a lot of opportunity to be inclusive of several groups within one shot. If this is to be done, finding a person who could be either Asian, Hispanic, or Middle-Eastern, all rolled into one, tends to help out a lot.

The main thing here is that you’ll know it feels real when you see it. And so will anyone who views your ad.


Another example of how cultural boundaries are blurring - is the automobile. It used to be that an automobile was made by a certain country. For example, 45 years ago, here in the U.S., if you bought a Ford Mustang you were supporting the U.S. economy because you were buying American. It was a clearly defined product from a country of origin.  These days a Ford will be more global in terms of what country it’s parts came from and where it was assembled. Ford has manufacturing plants worldwide, and different countries provide the engine, brake rotors, and so on. Current Ford Mustang GT engines are made in America. 6 cylinder pony engines are made in Germany. Manual transmissions for both were made in Mexico. Automatic transmissions for both are made in France.
There is a parallel to how the multicultural population has shifted here in the U.S.. If you look at our ethnic communities 30 years ago, there were large concentrations of Hispanics on either the west coast or east coast. Today, like the automobile, the evolving cultural segments are not so clearly defined by region. There are still large Hispanic Populations in New York and Los Angeles, but increasing numbers in new geographic regions, spreading to Central and Northern United States. The reality is that multicultural markets have spread throughout the United States. I was reminded of this recently as I got off the plane in Nashville Tennessee and promptly saw a public service sign in Spanish.
The perception of where Hispanic-Americans live has changed. Other cultures are experiencing this trend, as Asian-American populations follow, medical, retail and technology jobs. In effect, our perception of cultural boundaries has blurred.