How Two Young Entrepreneurs Are Bringing Diversity to Stock Photography

by Mirja Hitzemann

Entrepreneurs Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi are disrupting the stock photography market with TONL, a site with diverse stock images and stories. They are on a mission to use photography and digital storytelling to diminish stereotypes and challenge the homogeneous look of traditional stock photography.

How did the idea for TONL come about? What motivated you?

Karen Okonkwo (KO): The idea first came about when I reflected on how terrible my experience was finding diverse imagery for my previous blog with my sorority sisters. After collectively discussing this gap in stock photography, we realized we were at capacity in our respective lives and couldn’t pursue solving this issue. What motivated us to bring it back to the forefront was the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille in 2016. Joshua approached me and encouraged us to revisit the idea of diverse stock photography so we could accurately portray our community.

Who is using TONL and why?

KO: Private individuals Personal use users right down to major corporations are using TONL because the images are more modern and relevant to the desire to include inclusive and diverse imagery.

How are you moderating images on your site that may be different from other stock photography sites or search engines?

KO: TONL is in its own lane so we don’t compare ourselves to the content other sites are producing. We focus on our subscribers and the search terms they are searching on our site to curate our own relevant content.

Your website states: “Creating an inclusive culture takes both commitment and action.” What does an inclusive culture look like to you?

KO: An inclusive culture is acceptance of everyone’s differences. It’s the ability to see color, but not lead with it. It’s the ability to practice empathy when interacting with people who look and believe differently than you.

What do you think the biggest obstacles to diversity in media and communications are?

KO: We think the biggest obstacles in diversity in media and communicationsIn our opinion it’s is awareness and access. Many old-school companies that are run by majority white individuals haven’t even heard of TONL. They generally are not aware of the pool of diverse individuals and entities out there so they continue to provide opportunities to the non-diverse circles they have cultivated. Various creatives of underrepresented backgrounds also don’t have access to these bigger brands which doesn’t help in changing the landscape of that brand to be more diverse.

Being from diverse backgrounds yourselves, how is diversity being understood differently in different contexts, in your experience?

KO: The manner with which you were raised plays a role in your interpretation of diversity. For example, not all black people are the same. Not all Asian people are the same. Socioeconomic status, levels of exposure to other communities, and your individual culture can shape what diversity means to you. 

It seems that TONL is not just about diverse stock photography, but about storytelling at large. How can we make sure that diverse narratives are heard and accounted for?

KO: We should take the time to create depth in our conversations with people that explore their full identity. We shouldn’t tolerate mediocre, surface-level conversation, especially with colleagues with which we spend a lot of our time. When we seek to understand people FULLY is when we can grasp diversity on a deeper level.

In addition to co-founding TONL, both of you are also involved in other projects, be it photography or networking events. How do you see the trends around work and career change in a younger, more diverse generation of digital leaders?

KO: We see more people finding a way to offer solutions faster. We see people stepping into solution roles faster because of the access of the internet. Our generation is the generation which is demanding change and it has been great to see different leaders pop up regarding various topics of inequity.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far and how did you deal with it?

KO: The biggest challenge we have faced in running our business is having an optimal site. We are still working through perfecting it to make it worthwhile for our customers and still competitive on a market saturated with many people tackling diversity in imagery.

Lastly, what advice do you have for young entrepreneurs like yourselves?

KO: Take your time. Although we live in a fast-paced world where everybody wants everything yesterday, there is no substitute for doing the market research and rolling out a sound, clean business. 



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