Distancing Through Definitions: Decoding iStock’s Images of Rape

Part of my time is spent working as contract employee for an online university. Though I am not certain what my official title is, I believe that I could be considered a “copywriter.” One of my assignments was to search iStock, the subscription based stock image site, for appropriate visual aids to supplement the online classrooms. Many of the classes were generic business or tech courses, so it was simple to find something that would work. I often scrolled through the images in search of “the least offensive” one, which was not terribly difficult.

Aerial view of the modern buildings and skyscrapers of New York City*

There were images of businessmen and businesswomen standing in front of futuristic reflective surfaces, surrounded by a dynamic group of employees hanging on to their last word. And stockbrokers grinning and shaking hands, as a big graph indicated profits; an arrow on the wall steadily hurdling upward towards the heavens.

Concept for drug addiction and despair
Photo of desperate young drug addict wearing hood and sitting alone in dark

I waded through photos of sad teenagers in black hoodies being consoled by overtly sympathetic counselors, their peers supportively sitting on the edges of couches. Soft warm glows abound—halos of hope for their future achievements.

There were the images of students from diverse ages and backgrounds throwing their graduation caps in the air. The sun, always shining. The rooms, clean and white. Everyone is happy—or people are sad. The models are, in fact, so exaggerated in their sadness, we no longer feel it ourselves when looking at the photo.

I discovered that some topics were not so translatable.

One of the classes dealt with Criminal Justice. The course discussed some very difficult subjects, like domestic violence and cases of rape. That is how I eventually found myself scrolling through iStock images of rape.

iStock is a grand experiment in the genericness of images. With iStock, everyone is on the same page. We are purview to just what one might expect of a status quo. iStock represents the most tepid and socially acceptable version of a subject by way of an image. These, primarily photographs, have a reputation for being cheesy, exaggerated, staged, and fake.

Do these qualities somehow create a distancing that levels the field for all onlookers? Once something becomes a signifier, does it actually lose a bit of its value—or does the significance become more sustained over time?

Rape - dictionary definition
Rape – dictionary definition

In the iStock world, when something is difficult to represent through images, they like to show it as a definition. They are particularly fond of close-ups with a shallow depth-of field, so as to say: “You guys get the picture. It’s a dictionary page. The word exists. What else do you need?” By using the supreme rationality of a dictionary page as source material, we as viewers, are subject to a distancing effect between the word and it’s implementation. The image holds us at arms length, so that there is almost no relationship to the word, except the   validation that it exists.

Once something is defined, it becomes an object. It becomes an isolate and a tool, one result of which, is having a the trait of usefulness. The object can potentially be employed by a user for their own gain or purposes. In the case of images of rape, which deal with an individuals suffering and experience, there is a major disconnect in translation.

I was surprised by the nonchalance of the image creators when dealing with subject matter this horrific. The violation of rape is such an insular and personal matter, that in order to imagine a type of universalist or generic approach to the subject is incredibly insensitive.

Mouth Sewn Shut
Young woman with her mouth sewn shut.

In one of the images, we see a close up of a woman’s face, subtle bruising left from abuse. Over her lips are a series of computer generated stitches, closing her mouth shut. The decision to photoshop string over her mouth, instead of having it simply remain shut on it’s own, adds a disturbing layer of violence to an already violent subject. And the fact that this act was imagined and executed in the realm of the unreal (of course they wouldn’t use real string to tie her mouth shut) begs the question: who are these images for?

Another image shows an attractive woman tied up with rope. We do not passively experience this image. It is framed to deliberately engage with us—to give us a participatory role. The model appears to be pleading with us. We are put in the position of voyeur and controller. The image is presented as a possible kidnapping or rape scene, but also resembles an pseudo sadomasochistic sex scene from pornography. The lines are beginning to blur between the two representations, and you can guess which gender is poised to lose power. I’m not saying that this type of sexual activity is inherently detrimental to women. Rather, I’m concerned with its representation. I’m concerned by the normalization of rape scenes by our image-obsessed culture. The fact that these images are presented as icons of rape, only serves to desensitize the masses of their seriousness.
To further complicate things. When you look at the search labels attached to this image, you’ll find the following words: Women, Only Women, Tied Up, One Woman Only, Hostage, Grief, Kidnapping, Long Hair, Blond Hair, Fear, Prisoner, Females, People, Anxiety, Depression – Sadness, Sadness, Emotional Stress, Desire

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.02.50 AM

Whose desire are we talking about?

Sexual abuse concept. Brutal man rapeing** young woman.

Maybe this woman is just a bad actress, but I could swear this image makes it look like she is enjoying herself. Or is even skeptical of this man’s strength. I do not believe that she is in any real danger. And maybe that is the point. Maybe the point is to avoid showing us something too real. That is why there are a lot of images of dolls covered in mud and thrown into the gutter.

I'm going to kill you

It is the aesthetic treatment within the media of iStock, itself, which presents rape as an almost mundane occurrence. Given a different context, these images might hold more water. I am including the images in this article, not to perpetuate their message, but as a reference to be looked at seriously, and analyzed critically. We cannot stop these sorts of images from existing, but we can make an effort to understand their role, and their affect on us as consumers.

*All captions for photos are taken directly from iStock

**raping was misspelled

Written by Charlotte Thurman,  August 2016

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