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Inclusive images

Published onOct 20, 2022
Inclusive images

What are inclusive images? Inclusive images intentionally include a variety of people and seek to portray people respectfully and disrupt stereotypes. In many cases, this means showing marginalized people in active, strong roles and not defaulting to showing those who have historically held power in society. A Forum One blog post originally published in 2019 by Acacia Betancourt recommends asking several questions to avoid bias when choosing images. Most importantly: Who is missing or excluded? A related question is who has historically been missing or excluded from this type of content. 

Consider multiple characteristics when deciding what people to show in images. Avoid using the same combinations of characteristics. For example, when you show Black people, don’t always show people with the same skin tone, hair texture, and body size. Diversity in images should be a concern not only when full people are shown but also when only part of people, such as just hands, are shown. A selection of characteristics to consider are below:

Finding images that show diversity and inclusion. Some databases purposefully focus on photos showing diversity or images of people who are marginalized because of their race, gender, age, or other characteristics . A selection of these resources is below. Another strategy is to use targeted search functions within more general image banks. For example, use search terms that include a specific race, or use filters that exclude a socially dominant group (e.g., exclude “White” from search results).


Examine your portfolio. Think about your entire portfolio when assessing the diversity and inclusion in your images. It is unrealistic to expect that a single photo or illustration will show the diversity in your audience (and in fact may come across as performative). Taking a portfolio approach will allow you to use several images to show a wide variety of people. Periodically examine the images your organization uses so that you can identify what people tend to get left out. The If/Then Initiative offers a toolkit to identify gender representation in images, and this tool can be modified to apply to any characteristic. Beyond single factors like gender, your assessment should also account for variety within a characteristic. For example, when you show women, do you tend to show women of a certain race or body type? Identify what patterns in your imagery may exclude people and how you can introduce greater diversity.

Pair with policy changes. Showing diversity and inclusion in images alone and not in your organization’s content or actions will appear hypocritical to audiences. Inclusive images should be combined with policies to make the organization more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

Don’t be performative. Do not make superficial attempts to show diversity and inclusion in images. For example, do not just put a photo of people of color on the cover of a textbook but nowhere else in that book (King, 2007). 

Avoid stereotypes. Inclusive images do not simply have diverse people in them. They should also portray people respectfully and avoid stereotypes. For example, avoid “inspiration porn ” which uses people with disabilities only as objects of inspiration, and avoid “poverty porn,” which people in extreme poverty, who are largely portrayed as people of color, are shown without dignity (Nichols, 2018 ; Dortonne, 2016). 

Before including images of a certain population, do research on how to most respectfully portray them. For example, one study argues that photos of people in prison can contribute to stigma if the images contain “elements of unworthiness, unpleasantness and immutability” (Miranda and Machado, 2019). The Conscious Style Guide also has resources that can aid in researching inclusive images.

Some aspects to consider when evaluating whether an image is appropriate include the following:

  • Who is in the foreground, and who is in the background or out of focus?

  • Who is in a position of power, and who is in a subordinate role?

  • Who is shown in full view, and who is partly obscured?

  • Who is larger, and who is smaller?

  • Who is behaving appropriately, and who is not? For example, consider this Red Cross safety poster, in which four of the five actions labeled “Not cool” are done by Black children. In contrast, both “Cool” actions are done by White people (Holley, 2016).

  • What environments are people shown in?

In addition to evaluating each image on its own, examine the entire project (e.g., book or article) to identify problematic patterns. For example, are images of people of color always shown in a less important sidebar instead of the main text? (King, 2007). Also, ensure that any objects of cultural or religious significance are treated respectfully and are appropriate for the context. Take special care with illustrations, as cartoons and similar formats often contain stereotypes.

Hiring a diverse team of professionals to create, locate , and review images can help prevent the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes in images.

Do no harm. Beyond avoiding stereotypes, inclusive images preserve people’s dignity and avoid causing harm to others. For example, the organization Time to Change recommends not using images that show self-harm or people with mental illness in acute distress as those images may be triggering. Similarly, Beat, a UK eating disorder charity, recommends not using images of emaciated body parts.


Beat. Media Guidelines for Reporting Eating Disorders.

Betancourt, Acacia. “How to Choose Diverse and Inclusive Photos.” Forum One, originally posted 2019; reposted Oct. 20, 2021.

Dortonne, N. (2016, December 8). The dangers of poverty porn. CNN.

Holley, P. (2016, June 27). ‘Super racist’ pool safety poster prompts Red Cross apology. Washington Post.

IF/THEN. (n.d.). Gender representation toolkit. IF/THEN® Collection.

King, D., & Domin, D. S. (2007). The representation of people of color in undergraduate general chemistry textbooks. Journal of Chemical Education, 84(2), 342.

Miranda, D., & Machado, H. (2018). Photographing prisoners: The unworthy, unpleasant and unchanging criminal body. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 19(5), 591–604.

Nichols, M. (2018, October 17). What is inspiration porn? Unpacking Disability with Meriah Nichols.

Time to Change. Guidelines: Media and mental health.

Yin, Karen. “Design + Images.” Conscious Style Guide. Accessed Jan. 31, 2022.

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