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The Truth Behind Terrible Stock Military Photos

The Truth Behind Terrible Stock Military Photos

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Note: This article first appeared at In Military.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Military, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.

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If there is one thing that veterans love to hate, it’s stock military photos. You’ve probably seen them in your social media feed or as an ad on a website; the perpetrators are usually companies targeting the veteran community for Veterans’ Administration (VA) home loans or class action lawsuits.

As a publisher and managing editor of a military blog, I’m guilty of using them as well. Especially when the workload is heavy and time is light.

In fact, much like the Stolen Valor craze which peaked in 2016, stock military photos have a cult following in the veteran community. But why do we love them so much?

Veterans’ Awareness of Military Mistakes Gives Them ‘Cultural Capital’

When veterans are aware of military mistakes that most people simply ignore, it gives vets what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “cultural capital.” Bourdieu asserted that “the accumulation of knowledge is used to reinforce class differences. That’s because variables such as race, gender, nationality, and religion often determine who has access to different forms of knowledge. Social status also frames some forms of knowledge as more valuable than others.”

This cultural capital reinforces the veteran subculture by granting us knowledge that most of society doesn’t have; for instance, the proper wear of a military uniform.

But why do stock photo companies or photographers consistently get it wrong?

Isn’t It Against the Law to Display Accurate Military Uniforms?

Recently, someone asked me a question about the legality of having actors or models wear a U.S. military uniform. That person said, “Isn’t it true that a uniform worn in a movie has to have something wrong with it and can’t be identical to an actual uniform?”

This persistent rumor has existed for at least three decades. I remember hearing the same argument in the 1990s.

Actually, the Supreme Court ruled on this matter in a 1970 case called Schacht vs. United States. This ruling involved a case of an actor who was convicted of illegally wearing a military uniform while performing an anti-war skit in front of an induction center.

The Supreme Court declared that a limitation on wearing uniforms was unconstitutional. Actors were allowed to wear military uniforms as long as they did not “discredit the armed force.”

stock military photos
A civilian may see nothing wrong with this photo, but a veteran would instantly recognize it as fake. When wearing cover, the salute should go to the tip of the hat, not the eyebrow. Also, the “NCO’s” hair is touching his collar and his sideburns are way too long and out of regs. There are also no name tapes.
Finding Accurate Depictions of Military Uniforms Is Simple

There is absolutely no legal reason to not have an accurate representation of military uniforms in movies and advertisements.

The truth is that every uniform error that you have seen in any movie or ad dating back to 1970 is there because of laziness. I understand that every film can’t always afford a military advisor, but uniform regulations for every branch are public record and require very little research effort.

It’s Not Just the Uniforms That Are Inaccurate in Military Stock Photos

Besides the train wreck of bad uniforms, a telltale sign of a stock military photo is the model with a goatee, beard or an image with their hair touching their ears or collar.

The military’s grooming standards are inflexible with the rare exception of what’s called “modified grooming standards.” Those standards might include beards for special operations or some sort of medical condition that might prevent a servicemember from shaving.

Like uniform regulations, military grooming standards are pretty easy to find with a rudimentary Google search.

Why Are Stock Military Photos So Ridiculous? It Might Be the Photographer

Perhaps the question we should be asking is why are both free and subscription-based stock photo sites filled with laughably inaccurate military photos? Hasn’t the photographer ever known anyone who had ever served in the U.S. military?

A little internet sleuthing brought me the answer. Sampling five random terrible stock military photos from five different photo sites, I made note of the photographer or company behind the images. In all five cases, the photos were taken by individuals outside of the United States, and three of them were based in the U.K.

Presumably, the photos were taken based on the photographer’s “best guess” of a U.S. military uniform.

Most Real Military Photos Are Public Domain

The worst part is that the majority of real military photos are in the public domain. By law, works prepared by federal government officers or employees as part of their official duties are not copyrightable. That means thousands upon thousands of works of all kinds — written works, photographs and other images, films, and software — are in the U.S. public domain.

As long as a company gives credit to the active-duty photographer and is public with its disclaimer that use of military imagery is not an endorsement by the Department of Defense, it’s perfectly fine for most organizations to use authentic military photos.

Ultimately, when marketing to veterans (or any other psychographic marketing segment), all we want is authenticity. Making the effort to get the details right will go a long way to appealing the veteran demographic. As consumers, we crave authentic experiences.

Having said that, I must appeal to photographers of terrible military stock photos everywhere: Please don’t change a thing. The entertainment value of your work far exceeds my desire for accuracy.

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