A joyful woman stands by the shore, her arms spread wide, an exultant silhouette against a yellow sunset. This woman with open arms comes in many forms. Perhaps she has short hair, or a ponytail, or freckles. She might be in an autumnal forest, or on a snowy mountaintop, her cheeks pink with rapture. Perhaps she is, in fact, a man, on the open road with a backpack full of freedom. But in every guise and every location, the meaning of her pose is unmistakable: whatever this woman is having, you want it.
Once I noticed the Open Arms Woman, I started seeing her everywhere, on health food adverts and in travel agency windows, women’s magazine articles and dietary supplement bottles. She is a blank slate that only says one thing: happiness.
On a regular day, we see hundreds, if not thousands, of images like this. Unlike traditional photography, these images weren’t commissioned for one specific use — they’re stock photos, intended to be used by anyone who can pay the fee to license them. Designed for universal appeal, they are light on identifying details and contextual clues, anything that might risk obscuring the image’s central message, whatever it is. In a stock photo, a doctor always wears a stethoscope; a thief would probably wear a balaclava to bed.
The stock industry began to escalate in the 1980s, as more photo agencies offered a pool of pre-shot, professional photos to clients. In the early 1990s, doorstopper catalogues appeared, allowing advertisers to…