CANNABIS CULTURE – Ophelia Chong needed information about medicinal marijuana. She was researching its health benefits on behalf of her sister, who suffers from an autoimmune disease. But as Chong looked online, she noticed something: cannabis content featured virtually no images of Asian people.
People of color were largely missing, or portrayed with problematic stereotypes. Seniors and LGBTQ people were also conspicuously absent, and the images of women were all too often sexualized. “No one looked like my sister,” Chong says. “I didn’t want to show them to her.”
And the images weren’t just pale and male—they were simply bad photos. Mainstream stock photo sites didn’t offer quality cannabis photography. And though the cannabis industry has been striving mightily to join the mainstream, shots of badly-lit grow rooms, grimy-looking dispensaries, or sexy nurses with joints in their cleavage just underscore the sketchy stereotype that surrounds pot.
So, Chong founded Stock Pot Images, the first stock photo agency to specialize exclusively in cannabis-related imagery. Her site features quality images of everyday people across the spectrum of age, race, gender, and sexual orientation. She offers shots of farmers, scientists, veterans, nuns, bakers, and budtenders, whimsical food photos, and stunningly artistic images of the plant itself. There’s an entire gallery of animal photos to serve the growing interest in CBD for pets. It’s only been three years since she founded Stock Pot Images, but already Merry Jane has dubbed Chong’s site “the Shutterstock of weed.” “We are the largest and most comprehensive library of cannabis strains,” Chong notes, “and we treat our images with respect.”
Chong’s roots in visual culture go deep: she started her career as a photographer at Raygun Magazine, then moved on to Sony Music, Mercury, Epitaph, and Interview Magazine. She did a 10-year stint as creative director at Slamdance Film Festival (Sundance’s edgier counterpart) and is now a professor of photography at Art Center College of Design. Her visual and cultural cred is apparent in Stock Pot’s eye-catching repertoire: some of her former students are now contributors to the site, and to ensure authenticity, Chong insists that all her photographers use models who are actually cannabis users. The only don’t? Disrespectful images of women. “No girls in thongs!” she laughs. But she’s serious about Stock Pot’s role in ending the stigma surrounding weed, and sees her work as a chance to spur a visual revolution: “We are changing the face of cannabis.”
Chong built her business on the fact that representation matters, especially in the booming cannabis economy. Colorado was the first state to open up legal recreational pot sales in 2014, yet Cracked magazine called the state’s cannabis economy “the whitest industry since country music.” As of 2017, there were 3,200 to 3,600 marijuana dispensaries in the U.S., but fewer than three dozen are Black-owned. Women are underrepresented too: just 27 percent of executives in the cannabis industry are female. Stock Pot Images provides an important way to change the public concept of cannabis consumers and sellers.
Chong is now rallying women and people of color to join her in the ranks of the cannabis industry. Most of her photographers are women, and she pays them well above market rates for stock photography. But her advocacy goes beyond her business: she’s also the co-founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education (AACE), a nonprofit that empowers Asian communities to educate the public on cannabis issues, news, and policy affecting Asians worldwide. She acts as creative consultant at PUSH Mag, a cannabis publication for millennial women. She is also the Community Outreach liaison for THC Design, one of California’s premium cannabis growers, where she’s responsible for outreach to veterans, women, minorities, disabled people, and the LGBT community.
As prohibition collapses across the country and cannabis joins the mainstream, Chong says Stock Pot Images will just continue to make the myriad faces of cannabis visible: “Cannabis stereotypes are not true. By presenting cannabis consumers in a more responsible and socially accurate way, we’re doing our part to help people realize that cannabis is simply just another medical or adult-use option.”