TONL Cofounder Karen Okonkwo Is Revolutionizing Stock Photography With Color and Culture

Courtesy of Karen Okonkwo

We've all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what are those pictures really worth when they only show the same type of people, over and over? When we think of stock photography, we often think bland (and often ridiculously staged) images that are meant to depict everyday life. They're supposed to be relatable. Everyone is supposed to be able to see themselves carrying out the ordinary tasks portrayed. But the fact remains that stock images are overwhelmingly white in a world that's definitely not. And in our society, the media's lack of positive representation of people of color is not only frustrating, but it can also be dangerous.

It was that realization that spurred the launch of TONL in August 2017. As stated on its website, TONL's mission is to "transform the idea of stock photography by displaying images of diverse people and their stories around the world." That's obvious once you take a look through any of the seven collections available to those with a subscription; models of all ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, body types, sexual orientations, genders, and ages are featured in various stunning shoots. It's completely different from other established stock photography companies, and it's breathing new life into the industry.

Co-Founder Karen Okonkwo, a 29-year-old Seattle-based "serial entrepreneur," was struck by the problem of diversity in the stock photography business while working on one of her earlier projects. As a creator of content being seen by people with various backgrounds, she realized that she wasn't able to present any sort of diversity in her work because it was such a struggle to find images that showcased it. So, Okonkwo joined forces with Joshua Kissi, a New York-based photographer and the co-founder of the creative agency Street Etiquette. Once they found the right timing and decided to launch TONL together, it was full steam ahead.

I was able to chat with Okonkwo via video call, and the passion and conviction she spoke with made it easy to see how she was able to take such a straightforward idea and turn it into a revolutionary enterprise. Here, interwoven with images from TONL's diverse collections, Okonkwo reveals the inspiring story behind the birth of TONL, why it almost never happened, and what kind of legacy she hopes to leave behind.


Mekishana Pierre: How did you first get into the entrepreneurial business?

Karen Okonkwo: The entrepreneurial bug bit me in 2012. A year prior, I moved to Seattle via California to work in medical sales. I was getting really into my job, but I [felt] like I didn't really have a friendship circle here. Your social life is handed to you in college, so when you move, it's going to be hard for you to make friends. I decided to start a meetup group on to find other women β€” especially other African-American women β€” and [started throwing] events all the time. Women would ask me to plan their birthday parties, bridal showers, etc. So I was doing that on the side, and one of my friends was like, "You're so good at this β€” why don't you turn this into an actual business?"

My first business was Party With a K, in 2012. From there, I [started] The Sorority Secrets, which was a resource for women [on college campuses] looking for beauty, health, wellness, and fashion. That segued into Her Big Day, a site for brides looking to infuse their culture into their wedding, and Building Bridges Brunches, a women's empowerment brunch meant to encourage women to realize their vision in life. And now here we are with TONL!


MP: What was the driving force behind TONL?

KO: I recognized [the lack of diversity] when I was creating content for Sorority Secrets. We were creating our own images and also trying to find some online, and I couldn't find any [black women].

"How many of us are so programmed to see the world as white that we don't even notice when we are perpetuating that idea ourselves?"

A friend of mine actually came up to me and said, "If you don't mind me asking, why don't you showcase any black people on Sorority Secrets?" How many of us (people of color) are so programmed to see the world as white that we don't even notice when we are perpetuating that idea ourselves? I was blind to it because I wasn't even focused on race; I was focused on quality images [and] could only find [them] of white people because the majority of white people are given those opportunities. That was when I really shifted my thought process on how I was portraying my brands.

What you see in TONL's photos is a reflection of our personal circle. When we first started, we saw no reason to tag our photos as "black girl" or "Mexican man." But we eventually made the decision to do so, to the best of our ability. We recognize the power in providing proper identifiers; it's important to embrace people's identities.


MP: What has been the response to TONL?

KO: Let me actually tell you about the response we got before we even launched: we decided to share with our friends and family that we were going to [embark on] this business venture, and one person took what was supposed to be a private email and actually tweeted it. From that point, it spread like wildfire. When I came back to my phone, it was blowing up with notifications! It was an outpouring of love!

MP: What has the feedback from subscribers and users been like?

KO: All [the feedback] is in the realm of "I've been in the industry for 'x' amount of years, and I've never come across diverse images of this quality" to "I've struggled so much looking for images of people of color, and this has answered my prayers!"


MP: Would you say TONL is your greatest accomplishment?

KO: Yes, for the simple fact that I was but one decision away from not doing it. As successful as The Sorority Secrets was, I felt like we were not showing imagery of a diverse group of women β€” because we couldn't find it. I reached out to Joshua Kissi with the idea [for TONL] with the hope that he would do it, not me. I was already at capacity; I already had other businesses, and I just didn't have the bandwidth. He said he wouldn't do it unless I did it with him, and so we literally went seven to nine months just not doing it.

[Joshua] came back to me [in the midst of] many killings in the black community, specifically Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. He was like, "What better time than now to change the narrative of our communities?" That decision to move forward has been a blessing, and it's my biggest accomplishment.


MP: One of TONL's features is the Narratives Section, which highlights the personal stories of your photo subjects. What was the reasoning behind including that?

KO: Joshua and I are huge believers in storytelling and being authentic. We really wanted to find a way to add an educational element [to the imagery].

"We wanted to take the narrative back and allow those people to speak for themselves."

Most [stock] pictures you just take and use for whatever you want, but you don't really know the story behind the person [in them]. And in a society where we may look at people's skin colors and immediately judge them or associate them with a negative stereotype, we wanted to take the narrative back and allow those people to speak for themselves.

We're always being asked, "Where did you find these people?" The reality is all of the people that you're seeing on our site are our friends. We only recently started tapping into people that we don't know β€” most notably, Nodumo. She reached out to us on Twitter and asked if we [offered] any pictures of people who are albino. When we don't have something yet, we are very open to suggestions, because it's a community. We ended up sharing her narrative. We reached out to her like, "You're going to be our first Albino model!" We believe in the power of the narratives.

MP: What is your approach when it comes to creating collections?

KO: First and foremost, it's really important to us to be of the times. One of the things we noticed when we were studying other stock photography businesses was that they were very cheesy and stale. We believe in having authentic experiences during the photo shoot, so we tell people, "Please wear whatever you would wear on a regular day, and just act like we are shooting a regular day in your life." It's really important for us to portray that, and it's been successful; people have bought into that.


MP: What kind of impact do you hope TONL has on the future of diverse representation in photography?

KO: Really, we just want to be the starting point in a conversation of why diversity matters, and one of the strongest ways that you can communicate with people is through pictures.

What we hope to ignite in people is the idea that it's OK to implement diversity and it shouldn't be a trend. And we're starting to see that; we're hearing from people, "Gosh, I've never known where to start, [but] your pictures have allowed me to expand in that sense." We hope to prove the idea that diversity and equal representation matter.

MP: Are you seeing that kind of change in the industry now or do you think there's still a lot of room to grow?

KO: The idea of TONL actually started in February 2016. We spent a great deal of time asking [ourselves], "Should we do this? Should we not?" and researching, putting the website together, and shooting the photos. The irony is that 2017 seemed to be the year of demanding diversity. A perfect example would be Fenty Beauty; that launch alone showed people that we want diversity and we're going to demand it. We're going to go down this road, whether you like it or not.

I am starting to see [change]; however, we definitely have a long way to go β€” especially in the movie industry and [in] large organizations. They'll showcase these team photos, and it's laughable [when] you spot the token brown person. It's really not OK. We really have a ways to go, though I will not negate the steps we've taken.


MP: What is the next step for you, personally?

KO: To get my voice out there. I have quite a few goals to hit in terms of spreading the importance of diversity and also just empowering women, in general.

MP: What do you want your legacy to be?

KO: I want people to remember me as a doer. I've always said what I wanted and believed I would get it. It's a joke among my friends that it's never a matter of if I'm going to get something or achieve something β€” it's a matter of when. I want to leave behind the idea that you can achieve all things through Christ, who strengthens you, and [for] people to know that I was a servant to God and to other people.

TONL offers several subscription packages for all your diverse stock photography needs! You can grab a monthly subscription or pay as you go by clicking here.