Your Favourite Stock Photo Memes and their Origins

Ah, memes… One of the most notorious inventions of the social media era. Okay, maybe not, but they’re still a social phenomenon that proves like no other how much images can connect with people. Love them or hate them, memes are everywhere. But did you know some of the most popular have their origins in stock photos?

It’s true. Some of the Internet’s favorite meme characters are models, and the images that made them go viral are actually stock images they posed for, which are sold in different agencies. One day someone saw the meme-ability in them and the rest is history: they became pop culture icons, starring in countless funny images, videos, articles. Tell me now that stock photos aren’t versatile!

Today we'll review some of the best stock-photo-based memes, and help you get inspired to create your own funny images using stock photos. As a plus, we give you the original photos straight from some of the Best Stock Photo Sites ever! No one can stop you now from creating more internet memes.

The Best Stock Photo Memes

Let’s have a quick look at the most famous meme-worthy images and their origins in stock photography. You’ll be left inspired to find the meme factor in stock photos too and you will find funny stock photo memes.

Distracted Boyfriend – A Stock Photo Visual Novel

One of the most popular memes since last year is that of the “distracted boyfriend”: an image that shows a young couple strolling down the street holding hands, with the boyfriend turning his head around to check out on a young girl passing by, as his girlfriend looks at him angrily. This is actually a royalty-free stock photo, and the three characters in it are all models.

Distracted Boyfriend Meme Stock Photo

Image(s) licensed by Ingram Image / Stock Photo Secrets Shop

Photographer Antonio Guillem shot this royalty-free stock photo in 2015 and initially sold it via iStock (find all the info in our iStock review) but it became meme material in 2017, proving to be a versatile and very wide source of comedic material.

At first young Internauts found the photo and poked fun at the infidelity concept by tagging people who would identify with any of the characters in the image. Shortly after, new funny layers to the image were discovered, with users adding text tags adding names, concepts or value to each of the participants to repurpose its meaning into “wanting what you can't have /what you should not want”. This led to that particular shot to be sold over 13,000 times back in 2017!

Furthermore, the online community discovered that Guillem had actually shot a whole series of stock images with these three models, that portray various aspects of everyday life and different stages of a romantic relationship. And that’s when the meme exploded, inspiring even funny videos that followed the lives and troubles of these fictional lovebirds.

Get the photo Antonio Guillem sells his work in most of the best stock photo sites. You can find the famous distracted boyfriend meme and other boyfriend memes and more images from that series and/or with those models at:

Hide the Pain Harold – A Stock Photo Model’s Smile

One very famous face in Internet-based culture today is that of Arató András, a Hungarian senior stock photography model whom, thanks to his particular facial expressions, became known as “Hide the Pain Harold”, a meme-worthy character that has been around the web since 2011. He is also known as “old man stock photo meme” for some people on the internet (he doesn't feel old though). He got famous on Reddit in the group “stock photo memes reddit”. He is used widely in social media and even for some awesome new campaigns (below).

Hide the Pain Arnold - Stock Photo Meme

© Nyul |

First photos featuring András were turned into memes around that time, being originally sourced from stock photo agency Dreamstime (of which you can read all about in our Dreamstime review).

While he smiles kindly in most of the photos he modelled for, something in András’ expression made Internauts feel like he’s soldiering through some kind of hidden pain or discomfort, a concept that easily fit into countless graphic jokes about everyday life.  


Fast-forward a couple years and Arató introduced himself to the world as the person behind the meme. People take selfies with him whenever they see him, and he even starred in comedic video productions as his meme alter-ego: 

It only took an Internet user seeing his expression while sorting through stock photos for the Harold phenomenon to unveil. Do you think you could find the next meme star in a stock photo library?

Get the photo – You can find stock photos featuring Aratós in the main stock photo agencies like: 

Woman Laughing Alone with Salad – A Stock Photo Classic

This is an all-time favorite meme across the web, and unlike the others, it does not feature one particular model nor is created by one particular photographer. Instead, it makes fun of what turns to be a very common and popular concept in stock photography: images of women alone, laughing or smiling in joy as they eat colorfully fresh salads.

Image(s) licensed by Ingram Image / Stock Photo Secrets Shop

People have been mocking the women and their salads since 2011 when the Hairpin made the first compilation of such photos.

This kind of images represents what in this industry we call the “stocky” look that was successful in the early days of microstock: overly produced, somewhat cheesy, not very relatable. It works for conveying ideas like the perks in a healthy diet, for sure… but if you look at them closely, like the first critical Internauts did years ago, you can’t help to think why are these women so incredibly happy about their salads. Do they really enjoy raw veggies that much?

Like this, a particular composition and concept became a meme character that a lot of very sarky social network users can laugh at. Okay, okay: with.

This meme was so popular that it even inspired a theatre play with the same name this year! According to the Chicago Tribune, the Woman Laughing Alone with Salad play, from playwright Sheila Callaghan, explores “Body image, sexuality, male insecurity, advertising, the pharmaceutical industry and a whole lot more.” How’s that for an inspiring meme?

Get the photo – As this is not the work of a specific photographer or model, you can buy the perfect photo of a woman smiling with her salad in pretty much every stock photo site that is worth knowing:

BONUS: A Celebrity Recreating Stock Photo Poses

Ok, this is not a meme, but certainly shows how memes have opened up to a whole new purpose for classic stock photos. In a production for Vanity Fair this May, the always bubbly British actress Emilia Clarke did a comedy-styled video where she recreated the most iconic, “stocky” stock photo shots with business theme: the woman in a suit standing confidently with her arms crossed, or using a pointer to point at something on a graphic board to an audience of colleagues, for example.

This video (and similar productions like actor Vince Vaughn’s) are a great example of how old school stock photos are present in today’s pop culture, even if it’s in an ironic, make-fun-of way. This repurpose opens a lot of creative opportunities for these sort of dated and not very relatable images.

Get the photo? – These photos aren’t for sale, but you can find classic composition stock photos in any popular image bank, and repurpose them with new models in funny videos and still images using your own imagination.

Creating Memes from Stock Photos: A Quick Guide

Already inspired by those hilarious stock photo memes? Then let’s take care of business: using stock photos to create a funny, relatable and potentially viral meme is not necessarily rocket science, but there are a few things to keep in mind, probably things you’re already asking yourself right now. So let us try and give you the answers!

How do I Create a Meme?

Obviously you can use professional image manipulation tools for this, but memes are characteristically simple (mostly just overlaying text on an image) and so basic image editors will fulfil the task.
If you want the full “meme look” with the iconic white font, one very easy way is to use a web-based editor specifically for memes, like Imgflip Meme Generator. This super simple tool lets you create memes in minutes: all you've to do is select an image (or upload your own), add your copy in the signalled fields and download the final file.

Important! If you're used licensed stock photos, you MUST make sure you're controlling your usage. So in the case of Meme Generator, always select on the “private” box that grants you're only one able to see and download the final meme.

This will avoid other users using your licensed stock photo unauthorisedly. With this option selected, all you've to do is download the file and it'll be ready to share with your audience.

How can Memes Help my Business?

Memes are a creation of the young online community. If you work in, with, or cater to this segment, then there’s more than one way you can exploit memes in your favour. The main and most typical use is of course in your social media channels. Creating a funny meme that you can connect with your company or services is one very short, sweet and easy way to engage your followers and bring on new ones. That is exactly what many big brands have been doing recently: even the most formal and serious businesses have noticed the power of using humour in social media to deepen the reach of their brand and message in the masses. 

Can I License a Stock Photo to use it in a Meme?

The short answer is yes (why bother you with this article if you couldn’t, right?). Royalty Free license (which is the one most online stock agencies use) covers commercial and personal use and does not restrict humourous concepts. The two things you must look at, however are:

  • Sensitive use: While humour is not forbidden, you must be thoughtful about how you present the people in the image. You should not go for concepts that put them under a bad light, specially regarding sensitive topics like violence, crime, etc.
  • Social media usage: Some agencies limit or directly forbid the use of their photos in social media platforms, so if that’s where you intend to upload your memes, double check before licensing. Many agencies, like our Stock Photo Secrets Shop, happily allow social media usage of images.

Is it OK to Edit a Stock Photo in a Meme-fying Way?

Yes, it is. Royalty free stock photos are perfectly ok to edit in any way you want (as long as they’ve been rightfully licensed). You can crop, resize, color correct, lay over text and do whatever you want with them. Just keep in mind the sensitive use clause.

What Kind of Stock Photos make for a Good Meme?

The good thing about memes is that you can unleash your creativity with them, so we’re not going to tell you what photos to choose. But you can grab inspiration from the above listed favourites to know in which direction you want to go when searching for stock photos that can make a good meme:

  • A very relatable scenario: Choose an image that represents an everyday life situation that you feel anyone can relate to. Such images can inspire your funny side to create a meme that most of your audience will identify with.
  • An attention-grabbing face: Find an image of a person whose facial expression or overall look transmits you something. What do they seem to be thinking? Whom do you remind you of? Creating that background story can help you come up with the next sensation in memefiable characters.
  • A what-the-heck picture: Pay attention to the actual compositions in traditional, old-school stock photos. Why are the kids laughing their heads off as they do homework? Why everyone in the office wears a black suit and cross their arms over their chests when standing? Finding the inexplicable, non-relatable or plain what-the-heck in stock photos, you will be able to turn them into a cool, sarky meme.
  • Repurpose the weird stocky look: The meme factor is not exclusively in using the photo to lay text over it or accompany it by a funny description. Those characters, situations and weird looking photos can be recreated in multiple creative ways.

Memes and the New EU Copyright Directive

If you’ve been following the news, you already know about the new Copyright Directive (Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market) approved by the EU Parliament. This new law intends to regulate copyright matters for the new internet era, hoping to level the field between original content creators and huge online platforms and companies. Its terms, however, have raised up a great deal of controversy, mostly regarding how accurately it protects artist’s property, and whether it actually hurts other involved parties (like online platforms) along the way.

Article 13 on this Directive is one stirring up crossed opinions, and it directly affects memes. This article says that online platforms “storing and giving access to large amounts of works and other subject-matters uploaded by their users” are held responsible for copyright infringements committed by their users on their site. And so, it calls for users and site runners cooperation in policing and avoiding such infringements.

While certainly a game-changer (until now users where the only ones accounted for copyright issues), this leaves a lot of material in a very grey area, including memes as they’re derivative works on the base of someone’s original material that is more likely than not copyrighted.

It’s unclear what will happen, from if this article will be implemented as is or would be modified, to how social sites will prevent copyright infringement if and when the Directive comes into action.

The best way to be ahead of these changes and maintain safe-to-use memes? You guessed: using royalty-free photos that are rightfully licensed as the base for your memes.

Find the Stock Photo Origin of your own Meme

Ready to have some fun with stock photos and bring humour to your business? We sure will love your creations to light up our mood!

Explore the Best Stock Photo Sites to find the next supplier for your meme factory! Here's some of the ones we recommend:

Let the memes begin!

Amos Struck

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus in providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography, like the PixelRockstar WordPress Plugin. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.

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