We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what are those pictures really worth when they only show the same type of people, over and over? When we think of stock photography, we often think bland (and often ridiculously staged) images that are meant to depict everyday life. They’re supposed to be relatable. Everyone is supposed to be able to see themselves carrying out the ordinary tasks portrayed. But the fact remains that stock images are overwhelmingly white in a world that’s definitely not. And in our society, the media’s lack of positive representation of people of color is not only frustrating, but it can also be dangerous.
It was that realization that spurred the launch of TONL in August 2017. As stated on its website, TONL’s mission is to “transform the idea of stock photography by displaying images of diverse people and their stories around the world.” That’s obvious once you take a look through any of the seven collections available to those with a subscription; models of all ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, body types, sexual orientations, genders, and ages are featured in various stunning shoots. It’s completely different from other established stock photography companies, and it’s breathing new life into the industry.
Co-Founder Karen Okonkwo, a 29-year-old Seattle-based “serial entrepreneur,” was struck by the problem of diversity in the stock photography business while working on one of her earlier projects. As a creator of content being seen by people with various backgrounds, she realized that she wasn’t able to present any sort of diversity in her work because it was such a struggle to find images that showcased it. So, Okonkwo joined forces with Joshua Kissi, a New York-based photographer and the co-founder of the creative agency Street Etiquette. Once they found the right timing and decided to launch TONL together, it was full steam ahead.
I was able to chat with Okonkwo via video call, and the passion and conviction she spoke with made it easy to see how she was able to take such a straightforward idea and turn it into a revolutionary enterprise. Here, interwoven with images from TONL’s diverse collections, Okonkwo reveals the inspiring story behind the birth of TONL, why it almost never happened, and what kind of legacy she hopes to leave behind.