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 different agencies sell. One day, someone saw their meme-ability, and the rest is history: they became pop culture icons, starring in countless funny images, videos, and articles. Just like our friend Harold, see further below.
Tell me now that stock photos aren’t versatile!
Today, we'll review some of the best stock-photo-based meme images and help you get inspired to create your own funny images combining stock photos and words. As a plus, we give you the original meme pictures straight from some of the best stock photo sites ever! No one can stop you now from creating more internet memes.
Let’s quickly look at the most famous viral 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 Image memes.
Hide the Pain Harold – A Stock Photo Model’s Smile
We had to kick off this list with arguably the most famous meme of today. The Harold stock photo features a face that is now uber-popular in the Internet culture: the character dubbed Hide the Pain Harold –some early mentions call him Maurice, but Harold stuck around–, the protagonist of countless memes since its coining back in 2011. But the back story of the real person behind the photos is equally interesting.
Stock photo Harold is actually András Arató, a 74-year-old Hungarian electrical engineer who dabbed into stock photography modeling in 2009 when a professional photographer recruited him for a photoshoot in his local Budapest. A year later, he turned to Google to reverse image search some of his stock image shots and found himself turned into a trending meme and insanely spread across the web.
While he smiles kindly in most of the photos he modeled for, something in András’ expression –particularly his smile and glance– 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. And he soon became Harold, the man who holds the pain as he's pictured in all kinds of everyday life scenarios.
His original images were licensed through the stock photo agency Dreamstime (which you can read all about in our Dreamstime review). They were soon used in meme creator tools and image sharing platforms like Imgur and Reddit, where they became a sensation thanks to hubs like the one on reddit” aka “memeeconomy”.
Today, Arató's photos are everywhere on social media, and he has a dedicated Know Your Meme page and an official Facebook page.
A few years after discovering his new celebrity status, Arató introduced himself to the world as the person behind the meme. People now take selfies with him whenever they see him and are interested in what he has to say about this phenomenon that his likeness launched. See him below in his very own TED talk sharing details on his journey from successful –yet anonymous– electric engineer to uber-famous meme hero.
Hide the Pain Harold – Meme Stock Images based Video
Not only is he an online celebrity, but he is now also banking on it! András, or well, Harold, has starred in more than one advert in Hungary, in a music video, and in several other gigs.
It only took an Internet user seeing his expression while sorting through new 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 meme image – You can find stock photos featuring Aratós in the main stock photo agencies like:
- iStock: See Smiling senior using landline phone and related images
- Shutterstock: Check Smiling senior man and more similar photos
- Dreamstime: Click on Sporty senior man and also see every photo of Aratós
All you have to do is register for an account at any of these websites, and you'll be able to license these and any other images they have.
Distracted Boyfriend Photo Meme – A Stock Photo Visual Novel
One of the most popular memes these last few years is that of the “distracted boyfriend”: a meme 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.
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. Therefore, this is not a new stock photo.
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 with names, concepts, or value to each participant to repurpose its meaning into “wanting what you can't have /what you should not want.” This led to that particular shot being 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 pictures factory exploded, inspiring even funny videos that followed the lives and troubles of these fictional lovebirds. A great example of the marketing potential of these pictures, which you can read more about in our article about the best images for marketing and visual content, where you will see a wee example with these familiar faces.
Meme Stock Image Video
Get the photo – Antonio Guillem sells his work on 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:
- Stock Photo Secrets Shop – Here's the Disloyal Man (featured above), as well as other photos from the series
- iStock – See the Distracted Boyfriend and other similar images
- Shutterstock – Most of the Distracted Boyfriend photo series is found here
Another Meme Stock Image: Woman Laughing Alone with Salad
This is an all-time favorite meme picture across the web, and unlike the others, it does not feature one particular model, nor does one particular photographer create it. Instead, it makes fun of what turns out 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. They are commonly used as “strange stock photos” to raise red flags about the counterproductive use of photo model happiness and the ever-smiling stock photo model in certain designs, which is a dated style now but used to be a very common request in stock photography years ago.
No worries – no one holding a gun here – just a nice green salad and a fork.
People have been mocking the women and their salads since 2011, when the Hairpin made the first compilation of such photos.
This kind of original stock photo represents what in this industry we call the “stocky” look that was successful in the early days of microstock: overly produced photo models, somewhat cheesy concepts, and not very relatable settings. It works for conveying ideas like the perks of 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 these stock photo models 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:
- Stock Photo Secrets Shop Meme Photos – Check out Mid Adult Woman Eating Salad (which is featured above) and similar images
- iStock – See Woman Eating Salad Near the River and many more
- Adobe Stock – You have Smiling Woman Eating Salad in Modern Kitchen and related photos
- Shutterstock – Check Playful Girl Eating Salad and similar
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 the 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.
Already inspired by those hilarious 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 user-friendly image editors will fulfill the task.
Adobe Creative Cloud Express Meme Generator
One of the best meme creator tools is none other than Adobe Creative Cloud Express. Adobe's social media image editing app comes with its own free meme generator that lets you come up with great memes in a matter of seconds!
All you have to do is select a size (you have preset for popular social media channels, as well as custom sizes available), then you can opt to use the many meme templates Spark library offers, as well as your pick from thousands of free stock images. Add your text, further customize with color schemes, filters, and other image tweaks, and when you're happy with the result, either download or share your new meme. That is easy!
Adobe Spark is free for all and forever as long as you don't mind displaying their watermark, but you can also remove it (and get a whole set of premium features) if you become a paid subscriber.
Canva Free Online Meme Generator
Making a meme with Canva is as simple as choosing a meme template, replacing text and/or images (they have thousands to choose from), and downloading or sharing it! You also have the option to create a meme from scratch.
This tool is free for all and forever, but if you want access to premium templates and images, you can pay for them as you need them, or go for a Canva Pro subscription and get a fully professional service to handle all your visual needs.
Imgflip Meme Generator
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 meme stock photos in minutes: all you've to do is select an image (or upload your own), add your copy in the signaled 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. Will you be able to create the best new viral meme?
How can Memes Help my Business?
Memes are a creation of the young online community, especially on Tumblr or Reddit. Basically, millennials coined memes, and Generation Z lives and breathes memes. If you work in, with, or cater to this segment, then there’s more than one way you can exploit memes in your favor. The main and most typical use is of course in your social media channels. Creating a funny new 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 humor 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 humor 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 in a bad light, especially regarding sensitive topics like violence, crime, etc.
- Social media usage: Some agencies limit or directly forbid the use of their photos on 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, layover text, and do whatever you want with them. Just keep in mind the sensitive use clause. You can create many new meme that way.
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 favorites 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. This will help you to create a meme based image.
- Reaction Gifs: Based on stock footage videos or stock photo models with many different stock photos
- 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.
Next Steps: Share your Meme on Twitter and Facebook
Memes, especially new memes, live and die with social media. So make sure they share this tweet on Twitter or share it on Facebook with their friends. You should have this post ready to get comments as well – this will help them to share a tweet and subscribe to your website (if you got more new stock memes for them). Another way could be sharing via Instagram or other new social media networks. So go ahead and get your follows, tweet, share, and more now for your meme. If you are really desperate – promote it via your app or popup.
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 the 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 were 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 it: using royalty-free photos that are rightfully licensed as the base for your memes.
Ready to have some fun with stock photos and bring humor 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 new meme factory! Here are some of the ones we recommend:
Meet the best-selling faces in stock and learn more about the world’s top stock photo models.