Removing the Whitewash: People of Color in FSI Illustrations


by Jay O’Connell


square-columnist-jayI’ve been illustrating Fantastic Stories of the Imagination for about a year or so now. It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of work. It’s also been an education on whitewashing and representation in genre illustration as I’ve struggled with two opposing realities; SF and fantasy is increasingly diverse in terms of its readers, writers, and characters… but stock photo source libraries are horribly weak in POC.

I could avoid faces and work with landscapes and still lives and silhouetted forms, which could read as any ethnicity; I could use white people wherever a text was ambiguous; or, I could struggle to find POC in stock photo libraries where they are not only often in short supply, but also frequently costumed (or un-costumed) in perniciously stereotypical ways.

I poured through the stories looking for clues as to ethnicity, and finally, recently, came to the conclusion that I needed to simply speak to the authors about this and discuss the options. Also, I simply got the ethnicity wrong on several occasions, missing obvious cues, whitewashing a story accidentally; sometimes I caught myself; other times the editorial process caught my oversight.

As I sift though the hundreds of thousands of images, I am looking for matches in age, gender, ethnicity, attitude-facial expression, pose, prop, lighting and attire. Backgrounds can be changed, and in fact, almost always have to be. The process is strangely exhausting; you have the image you’d like to make (if you had an unlimited budget), and then the images that spring to mind as you look for stuff by keyword that matches your initial vision. You search for the most bang for the buck.

I include here a few of my whitewash mistakes, and the fixes, so you can see this process in action.


This was my original, accidentally whitewashed illustration. the model reminds me a bit of the author, who I knew from a workshop. I was thinking of her, instead of the character, whose name gives us a better sense of a look for her.


After showing the illustration to the author, and realizing, duh, the name, I came up with this; the story is about a Latina Michael Jackson impersonator, and this really worked for the story so much better than the image above.

Astute readers and or budding copyeditors will also notice that I got the title in the title graphic wrong in the earlier draft s well. Two things one can take from that/this; one, I am an idiot. Or, two, when a designer is focused intently on visual form they make lots of weird mistakes that other people on the team need to help them fix.


My screw-up on this one was particularly egregious; I was fixated on on story content and again missed an obvious cue as to who these characters were.


Whitewash removed. Stock photo libraries ransacked; clothes drawn on both POC models.

Getting the final image on the second illustration here meant photoshopping the clothing onto both models, as the POC in stock libraries are frequently nude or in bathing suits. (Or they are in relentless business attire shaking hands with a white person who is generally positioned in a way indicating who is the boss.)

And no, I’m not making that up.

But the process has got me thinking about how I’d love to curate a stock library heavy on under-represented people; race, gender presentation, disability, weight, are some of the things that come to mind; pose them with genre props with good lighting on neutral backgrounds in a range of emotional states, and make these images available for illustrators.

Something to discuss another day!


Jay O’Connell is a parent, writer, and artist living in Cambridge, MA with his family, and the mandatory cats, books and computers. His fiction has appeared in Asimovs, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Interzone, and others.


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One Comment

  1. As you found through your own work, a lot of it is presumptions based upon our own backgrounds. When illustrating my own works its easier because I know what I think the characters look like. Otherwise it’s context clues and presumptions!

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