The Trend Forecaster Who Creates Your Sense of ‘Normal’

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Photo: Getty Images

Pamela Grossman, 36
Visual-trend forecaster
Brooklyn, NY

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Getty Images is the world’s largest visual content company. We create and curate stock photographs, videos, and other products that tell visual stories. Our images are primarily used for brands, advertisers, and media companies.

I’ve been Director of Visual Trends here for about three and a half years. I work on the commercial-photography side of the business. Because we have to anticipate what images businesses will want we have to do a lot of “forecasting.”

Our forecasting methodology is quantitative and qualitative. We have customers in almost 200 countries who all actively search our image databases. We can use our search and sales data to closely monitor the popularity of certain terms people search for; we observe which search terms are rising and falling and surmise why …

We can drill down to a pretty granular level. If I wanted to see the top-selling images of babies in Japan I could run a report on that. I can find out what images a certain industry is searching for. And that’s often where we start.

Recent trends we have seen involve search terms like “immigration,” “migration,” and “global.” All of these have increased in popularity. Over the last year searches for “Muslim” and “Muslim woman” have skyrocketed. In fact, “Muslim woman” is up 83 percent. The concept of “community” is up 62 percent. We have seen the demand for body diversity and authenticity in depiction of women increase significantly: “differing abilities” is up 229 percent; “unfiltered” 219 percent; “real bodies” 147 percent; “body positivity” 144 percent; “gritty woman” 90 percent; and “menstruation” is up 142 percent. There’s more: “grungy woman” 105 percent; “heroine woman” 80 percent; and “edgy woman” 54 percent …

So we have data points, and these tell us if we’re going in the right direction, but we often start with our own observations. Maybe someone on the team sees a female Olympian wearing hijab, or maybe we hear that Dolce & Gabbana is going to release designer hijab. A little kernel like that can make us go … hmmm, let’s dig into that a little more. Then we look into our search data and see, yup, in fact our customers are searching for this, too.

We have a global team of art directors and photo editors who we arm with briefs and research, and we discuss ideas a lot. We are always asking how can we get more of this content? We run in-house creative brainstorm sessions, we write briefs for our global contributors, which include photographers, models, agents, people like that.

If we only looked at data, it would be easy to think, This is selling! Let’s do more of it! But if you do that, you can get caught in an echo chamber. So the qualitative side of forecasting is much different but also very, very important. We meet with customers face-to-face to talk ideas and collaborate. We keep tabs on the visual Zeitgeist. The people on my team read blogs, they track social media, they track what the biggest box-office movies are right now. It’s work. All those threads are woven into a tapestry and that tapestry is what the world will look like tomorrow.

When I was younger, I was interested in what we would now called “alternative culture.” I was drawn towards surrealism, especially artists like Magritte, Carrington, and Varo. I wrote poems. I put pictures of Björk and PJ Harvey on my walls. My friends and I would drive an hour to track down a CD of B-sides of a band we really liked.

I’m still fascinated by magic and mythology and witches and fairies and mermaids. I’m in an occult-studies group. Some people might frame this as being this other side of my life —“off-duty” Pam, but that interest really informs my work, because mythology and magic and fairy tales and all of those things are symbol-based systems which change consciousness. They give meaning to the human condition.

Humans have told stories for thousands of years and the stories that we tell are often very similar … Although our climates and topography might be different, we’re all looking at the same sky. We all experience weather, and we have fire and water and these universal elements throughout the Earth that become really potent symbols for our inner lives.

A lot of our customers are coming to us to illustrate concepts. They know that they need an image that implies the notion of connection or success, but they don’t necessarily know what that looks like. They tend to lean on clichés. Some common ones are, say, using puzzle pieces linking together to illustrate “connection.” Or an image of a lighthouse to illustrate leadership. There might be beautiful lighthouse or puzzle images, so I don’t mean to knock them, but there are other ways to show concepts. I’d say that’s one of my team’s biggest challenges: taking these concepts and creating images for them that are fresh and artful.

The election cycles always present a challenge. The clips that all the politicians want from our company are very issues-based, so it’s things like gun control and reproductive health and poverty — things that are not always easy to illustrate well or to get access to. Politicians on both sides want to show things like a run-down hospital, which would mean that someone has to get into that hospital and get permission to take images in there, which is not going to happen. That’s a big issue when it comes to stories about abortion and women’s health. We do the best we can, but access and privacy are really tricky, and getting models who are comfortable acting that out or who are actually having that experience is very challenging.

About five years ago I started sensing a sea change in the visual culture that I was consuming. For example, in 2007 the top-selling stock image of a woman was passive women in a swimsuit. In 2012, it was a woman on a train.

These images could not be more different from each other, and the subtext is so different — one represents that women are passive objects who are just meant to use their bodies to allure you or sell you something, and the other represents women as the protagonists of their own story, who go places and have forward momentum in their lives and believe the world is their oyster … that it’s something for them to explore and experience and not something that happens to them or at them.

I realized that, professionally, we have this platform which we can use to encourage people to think about gender differently. I mean, everyone knows this, but I’m saying it anyway: So much of the way we think about all gender is informed by the images we consume, whether it’s how women are depicted in film or on TV or advertising.

So I was driven to figure out if there was a way that we could usher in a new age of gender equality through visual culture. I could see our customer behavior was already starting to shift in that direction, but I wanted to figure out ways to capitalize on that.

I was able to put together a presentation of my research and my observations for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization … The prospect was exciting: What would the world look like if there were more images of women or girls with power and agency?

We launched the Lean In collection in 2014, around the time I became director. I worked on the presentation for Sheryl as a side project because it was something I really care about, and I wanted to share with our art directors to motivate them to create more of these images. But because there was real data there and lots of qualitative examples of things I was witnessing, and demographic shifts, it became clear that there was a really strong business case here, too.

This was one of the first times Getty Images went from being a relatively neutral company to having a point of view. This was a line we had to skate carefully because no matter what my personal politics might be, we are a business and we still license images to people on all sides of the political spectrum. I’m very mindful that it is a business, and of the moment and the marketplace. I want to do things that are meaningful, but I need to be able to make a case for them.

We were the first in our industry to create lots of images of same-sex marriage and interracial couples and families, and to show people of different abilities. We were the first to change our model-release form giving models a third gender option. That was when the conversation around the trans experience was starting to really explode, thanks to Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, and it was really clear to us that we were going to want to create more images of transgender people. I am really proud of that.

The depiction of men and masculinity is shifting, too. I remember seeing a Tide commercial in about 2013 and the father was doing the laundry. It was such a basic thing, but you just didn’t see that before. If Dad was even in the commercial he was the buffoon who spilled a chili dog down his shirt, or he got messy playing soccer. Suddenly, here’s an image of a man using Tide. It was oddly groundbreaking …

If we want to build a world of real gender equality, showing powerful women kicking ass isn’t the only way. We need positive images of men being nurturing and collaborative and to show actual images of what it looks like when men do equal housework, or see a man listening to a woman lead a meeting. Things that are so basic and yet they were completely missing from the visual landscape until a couple of years ago.

We just launched a partnership with muslimgirl.com, who are the leading Muslim media platform for millennial women. We gave them guidance in terms of setups and wanted them to make these images commercially successful, but we really wanted them to take the reins when it came to working with their own photographers and doing their own creative direction. To me inclusivity isn’t just “let’s show more pictures of Muslim people,” it’s also “let’s give them the space to show themselves.”

To my mind so many social problems are caused by fear of the unknown. The quickest way to normalize an experience is to show it to people, and share it. I am driven by that belief and I do believe that the more images we see of Muslim families and people who are going to work and going about their daily lives will help take away some of the fear that is being stoked right now.

The day after the election I had to fly out to the middle of America and give a presentation about female empowerment and the power of images. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my life. I was in the middle of the airport and was just beside myself, and I really had to pull myself together and give a presentation about powerful women, when the polls had all been saying we were going to have our first female president — and then that didn’t happen. It was incredibly difficult to regroup from that and figure out how to talk about it and say, these images really do matter, this work matters, representing people of different genders and experience matters.

Right after the election there were a couple of advertising agencies and media companies who were like, “We need to create more images of white Middle America! We lost the thread and they feel invisible and excluded and that’s why we lost …” I do see some truth to that, we do need to make sure that we’re not silencing anybody in the country or saying that their experiences are not valid.

I’m proud of the work we are doing in front of the camera, but we still have a long way to go in terms of who is behind the camera. The media industry at large is still very white and male. There’s a long way to go, but I’m committed to change and to making space for people who are different from me.

The Trend Forecaster Who Creates Your Sense of ‘Normal’